The Speaker’s Lobby: Don’t Fear the Press

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

24 November 2009

To paraphrase Blue Oyster Cult, “don’t fear the press.”

As someone who’s been in journalism for 22 years and covered Washington for 16, I’ve experienced all sorts of good, bad and ugly encounters with lawmakers, officials, flaks, receptionists and various hangers-on.

I’ve seen Congressional communications directors be more than helpful, even when I was asking tough questions for a story that portrays their boss in a negative light. On the flip side, I’ve watched some press secretaries sound the klaxons and shift to DefCon 4 when I’ve posed the seemingly most-innocuous of questions. I’ve had lawmakers duck me, run away from me and tell me off. Others have practically sprinted out of House and Senate chambers to answer my questions. One even gave me a bear hug. Another kissed me on the cheek.

But one my overarching themes is, “don’t fear the press.” Take some time to get to know us. Some of us are actually pretty nice. And have had all of our shots.

First a lesson.

I grew up in rural Ohio amid farmland and thickets. A few weeks ago, my 78-year-old father told me about a young executive who started spending time at a farm close to our house. The executive wants to make the farm his “weekend” home. One day, the executive sought out my father to ask where he could go to shoot pheasant and quail. My Dad’s lived almost exclusively on the same piece of property since the 1930s. Dad gave the executive the names of several farmers who he thought would let him hunt on their land. Dad told the executive he’d be happy to take him around to introduce him to the farmers. The executive asked my Dad if he could call them or better yet e-mail.

Dad told him no. First, many don’t use e-mail. Secondly, Dad knows these farmers. There’s a bond there. They trust Dad. He told the executive that it would work better if he drove him around to meet with the farmers. Dad thought they’d be more willing to let him hunt if he was there.

Sure enough, with my Dad there, the farmers gave the executive their blessing to use their land.

I apply that lesson daily on Capitol Hill. I need to “hunt” on “Congressional” land all the time. It’s always easier if I know the people. Sure phone calls and e-mail have their places. But nothing beats talking with someone in person.

In-person meetings give you entrée into their world. You get to know what makes each other tick. You learn about their family and interests. Where they went to school. It humanizes both of you. And in a best case scenario, it helps both sides do their jobs better.

I try to make time to meet people in Congress. It’s one of the best parts of the job. And I try not to just pay attention to the chiefs of staff and press secretaries. I know that the folks on the lower end of the ladder will some day rise to the top. Still, some people are just freaked out by reporters. Even in non-threatening circumstances.

Earlier this year, I found myself in a Capitol elevator with a handful of junior staffers and a cherubic-looking intern carrying some documents. The staffers chatted briefly with the intern and then exited on the first floor. The intern and I continued the small talk until we reached the third floor. He exited the elevator and looked around. A confused look consumed his face. He asked if I could direct him to a particular room where he was delivering the documents. I told him how to get there. And the intern thanked me profusely. I then introduced myself, handed him my business card and told him to let me know if I could ever help with anything else. Lord knows hundreds of people were willing to help me when I was his age.

As soon as the intern learned I was a journalist, he recoiled in fear. He withdrew his hand and edged backwards.

“I’m not allowed to talk to the press,” he yelped, like a first-grader breaking away from a stranger offering him a piece of candy on his way home from school.

The intern then literally ran down the hall to get away from me.

Never mind that I was the one who gave him directions to the office he was seeking.

I’m certain the intern coordinator in his office warned all interns against “talking to the press.” But that’s not what “talking to the press” is. It’s one thing to have a civil conversation with someone wearing a press badge about the weather and how the Washington Redskins are playing. It’s quite another for an intern to speculate to a reporter about whether his boss will vote to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the health care reform bill.

And as if any experienced journalist would reliably trust an intern on such a crucial topic.

Apprehensive Congressional aides can sometimes be too cute by half.

I recently went to dinner with a good friend who invited another friend who is a legislative director (LD) for a second-term House member. The LD’s boss could face an uphill re-election campaign next year. I had met the LD a couple of years ago. But he didn’t remember who I was at first.

Naturally the dinner conversation turned to politics. And the LD nervously asked me if we were “off the record.” Of course, we were. This was just a friendly dinner. And to put someone “on the record” without prior agreement is unethical. But not that I was mining the aide for anything. And frankly, he certainly wasn’t saying anything that was very compelling.

At the end of the meal, the LD pulled me aside and again asked if we were off the record. Now I was mad. Of course we were. And he followed up a third time the next day.

This press paranoia makes me roll my eyes. And it also sends up my antennae. It’s a red flag if I’m not digging for something and someone gets antsy. Perhaps there IS something to hide. I might not know what it is. But it gives me good cause to start digging. Play it cool, and I’ll never know something’s afoot.

Sometimes, press secretaries with the best intentions don’t even realize they’re giving you fodder.

The House bank scandal unfolded when I was in college. Hundreds of House members wrote checks against funds they didn’t have in the bank. They used the House bank like an imaginary slush fund.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was a backbencher then. But Boehner helped bring the scandal to light as a part of the “Gang of Seven.”

At the time, the radio station where I worked near Cincinnati thought it would be a good idea to do a report about local lawmakers and the House bank. So I started by calling the offices of our local lawmakers to confirm if they had overdrafts.

When I asked Boehner’s office, they responded “No way.” Naturally Boehner didn’t bounce any checks. He’s the one who stirred the whole thing up. I followed up with the offices of other local Congressmen. Former Reps. Tony Hall (D-OH), Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and then-Congressman, now Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) did not bounce checks. And I got emphatic answers from each of their offices. We did not bounce checks. Absolutely not. Hell no.

And then I phoned the office of former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-OH). Other media widely reported that McEwen had more than 160 overdrafts in the House bank. So I rang up McEwen’s press secretary and asked the same question I posed to the other offices: Did your boss bounce any checks?

The response was slippery at best.

“Well, it depends on your definition of a bounced check,” the press secretary told me.

McEwen’s flak didn’t realize it. But he had just written my story for me.

So I simply strung together the declarative sound bytes of no way, absolutely not and Hell no from the other press secretaries. And punctuated the montage with the evasive answer McEwen’s aide provided.

The story told itself. And the listeners could make up their own minds about who bounced checks and who didn’t.

In the end, the prosecutor investigating the check-kiting scandal exonerated McEwen and hundreds of members. But the House Ethics Committee eventually targeted 22 lawmakers. And a few faced criminal charges.

Sometimes as a reporter, you don’t get what you’re looking for. Even if your intentions are good. You simply catch someone’s wrath for no apparent reason.

A few years ago, I swung by a Senate office desperate for an interview with a  Midwestern senator. The Capitol phone lines were jammed and I couldn’t get through. So, I just walked over to the senator’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

I knew the senator’s chief of staff. And I had met the press secretary. But didn’t know her well. When I arrived, the chief of staff just happened to be in the front office. I told her what I was looking for. She thought the senator would be happy to help. But the chief of staff sent me down the hall to the press secretary’s office. I entered and the press secretary was on the phone. So I waited patiently. Meantime, the press secretary continued a very long, non-work related call and munched on an apple. When she finally finished, the press secretary excoriated me for “barging in unannounced.” Never mind I simply did what the chief of staff suggested. She kicked me out into the hall where she continued to browbeat me. The press secretary even called my editor.

I never got the interview. And her boss never got on the air.

When I related this story to another Congressional press secretary, she told me that she would “love” to have a journalist show up in her office, invited or not.

“We almost never hear from any reporters,” she sighed, hungry to score her boss some ink.

Perhaps that scenario would please the communications director of one moderate House member. I’ve attempted to meet this aide for several years now. Every time I’ve dropped by the office, she’s either been away or “busy.” I leave business cards. And I never receive a follow-up call or message. A colleague from another news organization confided in me that she kept trying to reach this person as well, to little avail. When my colleague finally received a returned e-mail, the press secretary told her to “stop harassing me.”

Perhaps we would. If she’d return a phone call or e-mail. But my colleague and I have no relationship with this person.

Like my Dad and the executive who wanted to go pheasant hunting, nothing beats face time. Especially because many in media have a strike against us in the first place. In Washington, journalists are usually ranked right alongside lawyers and lobbyists when it comes to professions people admire. But that’s precisely why I continue to reach out to people.

I sometimes joke that it’s nice for press secretaries and lawmakers to meet me in person so they’ll realize I don’t “have fangs and horns and the carry the mark of the beast.”

But one Congressional communications director told me that seeing me in person “only confirmed” that I had fangs, horns and the mark of the beast.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won and Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.