Interview with Eric Engberg
Correspondent, CBS News

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.

The Washington Press Corps vs. the Politicians

SMITH: What was your impression about the relations between the press and the Clinton Administration when they first came into the White House?

ERIC ENGBERG: They had a -- uh -- belief -- this wasn't any secret -- I mean, some of them said it openly -- that the mainstream national press was no longer relevant to the public in terms of reporting on what the President was going to do. And that they were going to put the networks and the big newspapers in their place by going over their heads -- uh -- with the President appearing on talk shows and by setting up satellite networks that -- uh -- were going to reach, you know, beyond what the audiences were for -- for regular television, regular newspaper readership.
And they -- they really came here with the idea that you guys are the past, you're old fashioned and we've found new ways to communicate with the American people...I had combative -- uh -- disagreements with the White House press office in the early days of the Clinton Administration; in fact, out and out shouting matches with Dee Dee Myers over the telephone.

SMITH: Over what?

ERIC ENGBERG: Over -- over attempts on her part to find out what was going to be in one of my stories before it aired and I said you can watch it on television like everybody else does and then you'll know. And she took great offense at this. Called the bureau chief to complain -- uh -- then after the story aired, wrote me an angry letter saying that she didn't think that I was reporting the news.

SMITH: What was the story?

ERIC ENGBERG: It was a reality check [segment for the CBS evening news] and what -- what really surprised me about it, Rick, was that the only way to interpret a telephone call from a White House press secretary at 6 o'clock in the evening, 30 minutes before air time, is that it's -- it's an attempt at intimidation. It's heavy handed. When a White House press secretary calls a reporter and says I want to know what's in that story of yours. That is -- that can be interpreted as being nothing other but an attempt to soften the story or kill the story or in some way pressure the reporter and his organization. And that was the way I read the phone call and I told her that was the way I read the phone call. And she denied that was what she was trying to do.

ERIC ENGBERG: ...We are kind of like, in a lot of ways -- we're like sports reporters covering a football team. We've seen it before, we know what off tackle slant looks like. We saw it under five or six different Presidents. And when this President's -- uh -- line comes trotting out there and they miss the blocking assignment, we know how to write about that and -- we call the -- you know, we blame them for it.

SMITH: Let me just ask you, what is your take on politicians as a group, whether they're in the White House or whether they're in the Congress. I mean, are these essentially people -- honest, dishonest -- do you have to keep your eye on them ....what's kind of your starting point as you approach your targets. What's your attitude towards them?

ERIC ENGBERG: Whether they're running for office or whether they're already in office -- uh -- the first thing I advise young reporter is -- is that remember the reason this person got to where he is today, the reason he got elected or got appointed to a cabinet position is because he's a charming fellow.

SMITH: So, underneath the charm, what's the reality?

ERIC ENGBERG: Underneath the charm the -- politicians are faced with the same problem the rest of us are, they have to recruit their people from the human race. Some of them are decent upstanding people, some of them are self-promoting -- uh -- liars and cheats and some of them are somewhere in the middle and you have to judge them one at a time. And I view them as people who need to watched, in part because the kind of person that goes into politics is interested in selling himself as a commodity.

ERIC ENGBERG: I always feel that if a President needs somebody to say something good about his policies, he'll have an army of flacks and speechwriters to say it for him -- and -- uh -- I think -- I think the responsibility of the reporter to seek out good things about a sitting President is somewhat less than it is when you're doing investigative reporting, you know, on an issue where there -- there may be two sides and you're dealing with civilians. The White House is not a civilian agency, it is essentially a PR firm with executive responsibilities on top of it. And when the President is advancing his program, believe me, there's an army of people out there that are going to be talking about it. They don't need me.

Rush to Judgment: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage

What I am really appalled at is the extent to which journalists, ordinary reporters, are willing to go on television programs, in fact be stars of television programs and answer questions like on a scale one to ten, ten being absolute metaphysical certitude, what will President Clinton do about this? Who will win the Arizona primary? Reporters have no business -- uh -- getting into the mystic field, I mean we are --

SMITH: But you're talking particularly about predicting. In each of those cases those are examples of predictions --

ERIC ENGBERG: [Interrupting] Who's up, who's down. That is a trivialization and a cheapening of the governmental process and the political process. What worries me about it is not -- is not the actual -- uh -- the fact that they do it, but that every time a reporter shoots his mouth off and utters an opinion on one of those talk shows, it gives the public out in the rest of America reason to think, aha, they all do just sit around and scratch each other's backs and voice each other's opinions. And -- uh -- they're -- a good healthy dose of "I don't know" would be a very useful tool for journalists to use.

ENGBERG:There is a -- uh -- there is a tendency if you're based in Washington to report news in terms of its political out fall-- uh -- you know, it kind of reminds me of the line when a French political figure died and all of the people around the royal court said, I wonder what he meant by that. A President can't propose anything and the Congress can't discuss anything without the press generally saying, what's the political implications of this. I mean, does this mean he can carry California. And every once in a while, we need to get slapped around a little and think wait a minute these bills, this legislation actually affects real people who live in real homes with real problems and we ought to report more on the substance of the bill.
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© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.