Ritchie on Reporting

Assoc. Senate Historian’s Book a Study of D.C. Press Corps

Posted March 14, 2005 at 4:29pm

Years ago, journalists would rip a page from their typewriter, yell “copy,” and wait for a copyboy to take it and dispatch the news by telegraph. Soon after, reporters would get on the horn to dictate stories at rapid speed to someone back in the newsroom. Today, rather than running for the nearest phone, a reporter on deadline might be seen running for a coffee shop, or anywhere with an Internet connection.

It was such an evolution of journalism that it piqued the interest of Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie and encouraged him to try some writing and reporting of his own.

“Every time there is a new technology it brings in a new type of journalist,” Ritchie said. “Each generation, each form of technology had to prove themselves as journalists and eventually, the older, previous forms of journalism would wind up adopting the new form and in a sense try to compete with it.”

Ritchie’s daily interaction with journalists sparked both his curiosity and his latest book, “Reporting From Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps,” which hits shelves today. While giving reporters a quote or fielding questions about the Senate, Ritchie became “curious about how they go about doing their work and how accurate the picture was that they’re putting out to the public.” And so in 1980, “before the Internet existed,” he began research on the Washington press corps.

Riots and Revolution

The book opens with the Bonus Riots, when “an army of the unemployed marched on Washington in 1932, disrupting the capital and the sedate existence of its press corps.” Veterans of World War I invaded Washington, urging the passing of a bill that would allow them early payment of a promised bonus. The protests turned violent, and while trying to get the story, many correspondents “inhaled gas and felt the prod of a bayonet,” Ritchie wrote.

Back then, members of the Washington press corps “regarded themselves as the cream of the journalism profession,” but Ritchie said he thinks the riot period was “a very traumatic moment and a turning point of how [reporters] looked at the government.”

Many changes to the Washington press corps came about following the riots. The number of accredited journalists in the press galleries doubled during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, Washington correspondents finally were granted bylines, and women were breaking into the “man’s world” of political reporting. As a result of all this, Ritchie wrote that “from out of a cloud of tear gas had emerged modern Washington journalism.”

Perhaps two of the biggest challenges in journalism were the most fascinating to Ritchie, as he said he didn’t know much about either when he started the book. One example he gave is that he “had no idea it took black reporters so long to get their foot in the door of the press gallery.” The book’s second chapter, “Race, Rules, and Reporting,” tells the story of “financially strapped black newspapers” and the slow integration of the press corps over the years.

The struggles that women journalists, such as Helen Thomas, Mary McGrory and Sarah McClendon, faced in trying to be treated on an “equal basis in the profession” also intrigued Ritchie. In the chapter “Off the Women’s Page,” he details the “second-class status that women journalists in Washington long endured” and how it was overcome.

The book “essentially moves through time” as Ritchie said he “introduces each form of journalism when it really came into its own.” But this was no easy task, condensing 70 years worth of information into just 301 pages.

Researching and Writing

As a follow-up to his 1991 book “Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents,” Ritchie said his new book was more difficult to write because he “had to find some way to reflect all these changes” in the profession.

He also had to spend a fair amount of time conducting research, which he said consumed the majority of his evenings and weekends for the past decade. Searching for information on the different types of journalism, such as radio, television, print, wire services and the Internet, was time consuming, yet “a lot of fun to hunt up,” Ritchie said.

Luckily, Ritchie didn’t have to travel far for the majority of his research. Throughout the years, he pored over journalists’ memoirs and listened to oral histories. He was granted access to the basement of the National Press Club to sort through its file cabinets. He also obtained information from the Library of Congress, presidential libraries, the Standing Committees of Correspondents for the press and radio-TV galleries at the U.S. Capitol and the Broadcast Archives at the University of Maryland, just to name a few. However, when Ritchie did travel to deliver a speech, he made sure he took advantage of his surroundings.

“I would always try to stop at the nearest archive for manuscript collections,” Ritchie said. And when it came time to sort through all the information he had collected, Ritchie said veteran members of the press corps instructed him on what was and was not important.

To “give people a bit of flavor about who these people were,” Ritchie included an editorial cartoon and about 30 black and white photographs in the middle of the book.

But the abundance of information at Ritchie’s fingertips just wasn’t enough. Something was lacking; he wanted to hear stories and experiences first-hand. So he set out to interview current and former journalists, but he didn’t end up interviewing as many as he initially had hoped.

“I discovered that unless they were retired, they were too busy to be interviewed — they were the ones doing the interviews,” Ritchie said, as he pointed out that his Senate Associate Historian position came in handy. “I would pick up little bits and pieces of their observations while they were actually engaged in conducting interviews with me.”

Ritchie said the retired journalists he spoke with were more “reflective” because they had more time to chat about their experiences.

“I think people who interview as a profession are suspicious of interviews,” Ritchie said. “Journalists, they’re really a fraternity here, but at the same time they’re intensely competitive. They hang outside the doors, waiting to get some news and share info and gossip, but then they want to beat each other and scoop each other on the story.”

And where better to try to scoop other reporters than in the town that Ritchie wrote is “thick with correspondents for newspapers and magazines, radio and television, wire services and web sites; columnists and commentators; independents and stringers?”

“Washington, D.C. is a reporter’s town,” Ritchie wrote as the first sentence of his book’s preface. “More Washingtonians hold press passes than hold office.”

While that’s an impressive statistic, Ritchie wrote about a time when the Washington press corps felt “isolated” and when there seemed to be a “general indifference toward Washington news.” However, that indifference evaporated on Sept. 11, 2001, as journalists “took down the facts and tried to keep their heads in order to provide accurate information to a stunned nation,” Ritchie wrote.

The terrorist attacks breathed new life into Washington reporting and had Americans paying closer attention to the news, “so that people like me, who make a living trying to explain to people why Washington matters, don’t have to make that case quite so strongly anymore,” said PBS news commentator Gwen Ifill, as quoted in the book.

Ritchie said he originally had planned to end the book at the close of the 20th century, but “having started with a dramatic moment, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to be the optimal closing point.”

In the epilogue Ritchie tells how, in the profession that seemingly dominates the capital, the terrorist attacks “helped restore the demand for serious news” and “reaffirmed journalists’ own sense of the significance of their work.”

“Keeping the nation informed that day reminded them once again why they went into journalism, and why reporting the news from Washington still mattered,” Ritchie wrote.

While Ritchie said he cannot “just pack up and go sell the book,” he does plan to do some bookstore appearances, and he will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at National Archives.

With hope that a “variety of audiences” will read the book, including journalists, those who get their news from Washington correspondents and students, Ritchie said, “You write a book for yourself, you write it to answer the questions you have. Then when it comes out, you’re always curious as to who will actually read it.”