Interview With Brit Hume
ABC News White House Correspondent

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.

The Washington Press Corps vs. the Politicians

HUME: I mean, the first thing that struck me when I came down here after covering the Hill for 11 years and sat down in the White House briefing was how much more adversarial and contentious it was than what I was used to. I mean, it just -- really, I mean I always thought it was but I had no idea to what extent it was. Very argumentative, very aggressive. And you see some of that reflected here now. There is a sort of a looking for the worst quality in what we do here, much more so than was the case when I was covering the Hill.

SMITH: Why? How do you account for that?

HUME: I think it was the atmosphere that was created by the legitimate distrust generated by the statements during Vietnam about how it was all going, and by the scandal of Watergate, with all of the lies and all that we know about that, created an atmosphere in which the reporters who covered the White House were never going to be caught again. And they also recognized, if you wanted to be a big hero in American journalism, you didn't want to be accused of being soft on anybody. And that set the style. It was different on the Hill.

SMITH: Do you recall anybody in recent years ever having been razzed by the press corps on the buses or on the planes for having been soft? I mean, is there a real peer pressure, or is it just kind of in the back of your head?

HUME: Well, no, I think it's there. You don't -- people don't usually walk up to your face and say, boy, that was really a -- that was really a puff piece you did. But you do hear reporters talking among themselves and referring to somebody else's piece as wet kiss or something like that, which is -- that's real damnation.

SMITH: Do you find much of that in the Clinton period? I can't imagine there have been too many wet kisses in the Clinton period.

HUME: Well, not since he's been president. But there was a very strong sense that a number of reporters during the campaign were highly sympathetic to Mr. Clinton, certainly to his agenda and what they hoped he would bring to government. And there was some sense that some of those reporters who covered him were openly rooting for him. And you haven't had that much in recent years. Now, what's interesting about the Hill now is that with the power beginning to slide down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue with the end of the cold war and the new Congress and so on, Newt Gingrich has gotten presidential-level scrutiny, and no speaker before him in modern times has been given the level of press scrutiny that Mr. Gingrich has been.

SMITH: People talk about edge journalism. Edge journalism has become very much the vogue, that at the end of your piece there's a kicker, there's a zinger and so forth. Is this fair? And where does this come from?

HUME: It's a valid criticism, that the easiest way to make a piece have a little bit of what's called edge to it, which means that it's not a plain vanilla sort of straightforward report that concludes by telling you what the next day's schedule is, to take a dig at somebody, a jab, which -- or something that sounds like a jab, whether it's strictly factual or not. I think the greatest challenge in television news is to be interesting without doing that, because it's a cheap way to sound sharp. But the hard thing to do is to be interesting and be fair. And that's -- I think that's difficult.

SMITH: Did Clinton ever get a honeymoon?

HUME: No. And he would have. I mean, he was on track to get a honeymoon, but he really made it impossible for him to get a damn honeymoon. And the reasons were pretty clear. There was a series of promises broken and broken conspicuously and unmistakably before the inauguration. These were things that no reporter, however sympathetic or however honeymoon-oriented, could've got around. Most interregnum periods are pretty non-controversial and they have this sort of holiday glow about them and his did not...Then he had a couple of problems right off the bat that were really with his own party. And with those, one would presume, most disposed to help him -- on the gays in the military question and nominations that came a cropper and so forth. And they created an atmosphere here where you had this phenomenon, with which you are well familiar, of a running story, and the running story was one of trips and stumbles.

SMITH: Is there a sense, though, in the press corps that if you can bait the president -- ever since Dan Rather did it with Nixon --

HUME: No, no.

SMITH:-- on Cambodia and the invasion and that kind of stuff -- that if you can just land one on the president you've really made your career?

HUME: No, I think that's a -- any reporter that thinks that is a damn fool, because the public expects, whatever they think of a president, that the president should be treated respectfully and courteously. Now, I believe you can ask the president almost any question -- not any question -- but almost any question, if it is done respectfully and courteously. But the focus has got to be on the question, not on the reporter. I mean, our job here is not to jump up and say, hey, look what I'm doing. Our job is to say, hey, look what's happening here.

Rush to Judgment: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage

HUME: I think that the coverage of Washington and events here is by and large too negative. And a good example would be this business about shutting down the government, which has been portrayed in various media as a childish squabble among immature and silly politicians. I've been covering this budget now for 15 years. And this is the closest that it's ever come to anything big happening to fix this problem. And we see by the nature of the intensity of the fight, why it's hard. But this fight, with the government closing down in the middle of it, is part of the struggle for leverage over it. It is not a small thing. It is not a silly thing. It is not a trivial thing. It is a great, big, real fight over real things. And to the extent that it's portrayed as something else, is bad reporting -- silly, reflexively negative, lack of substance, the works. I believe that.
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