In CJR’s second issue, William L. Rivers presented a survey-data heavy article analyzing the Washington press corps. Rivers’s study was an update of The Washington Correspondents, a similar 1937 book. He argued that D.C. reporters were more professional than their counterparts three decades earlier, less likely to believe that their copy was subject to publishers’ political whims, and more likely to be paid far above an average worker’s wage. For today’s readers, it offers a snapshot of reporting in the age of Kennedy’s Camelot, and shows the continued dominance of some outlets (over 80% of reporters said they relied on The New York Times) and the absence of others (the most praised magazine was The Reporter which folded in 1968). Rivers’s article, based on thesis research, was expanded into The Opinion Makers, a book published in 1965 by Beacon Press, and hailed in the Political Science Quarterly as a “refreshingly candid look at some of the kingpins of American journalism.” The below paragraph originally ran above the article.
It has been said that most scholarly research is superseded within twenty years. By that criterion, Leo Rosten’s The Washington Correspondents has held up remarkably well. Still, a quarter of a century has brought major changes in the capital press corps. A broad new study of its composition was needed—and has been done. The author, who was twelve years old when Rosten’s study was published, did much of his research while working in Washington as a correspondent for The Reporter magazine and earning a Ph.D. in political science at American University. Before that, he worked on newspapers in Louisiana and Florida and contributed articles to many magazines. He is now an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas and is completing a book that grew from his dissertation, The Washington Correspondents and Government Information.
When Leo Rosten’s The Washington Correspondents was published, Edward Angly threw the author an acid salute, “At last,” Angly wrote, “someone has come along who takes the Washington correspondents as seriously as they take themselves.”
It was an intriguing line—and it may have performed the useful service of deflating some puffed-up correspondents—but it is hard to imagine worse timing. If Rosten’s book had been published ten years earlier, Angly might have been justified in the slur. Before the 1950’s, the correspondents were so nearly alone in considering their work important that its importance was diminished as a consequence. They were so little noticed that one suspects that the stereotype of the journalist of the 1920’s—perhaps he was a composite of Walter Winchell, Richard Harding Davis, and the local police reporter—ignored the Washington press corps altogether.
It should have been obvious to everyone by 1957, however, that the Depression and the New Deal had changed American journalism as well as American politics. For good or ill, the Washington correspondent was a man of the first importance. Rosten was simply the earliest of the social scientists to recognize the necessity for measuring political journalism.
“In a democracy,” Rosten wrote, “we depend on the press for a presentation of the facts upon which our political opinions are based and the issues around which our political controversies revolve, but we know nothing of the men, the women, the problems, the devices behind the dispatches and columns which begin with the portentous date-line ‘Washington, D.C.’” It seemed to Rosten that getting behind the dateline was a matter of the first significance. The fact that he succeeded may be suggested by the veteran correspondent who said, “Reading that book made us feel like we had been dissected.”
Now, twenty-five years after Rosten’s analysis, I am trying to update it. Inevitably, there are differences in the two studies. Newspapermen and wire-service reporters dominated the Washington press corps in the 1930’s and Rosten limited his investigations to them. Today, the radio, television, and magazine correspondents are quite as important, and they are included in my study. In part for this reason, and in part because of the growth of the press corps, my sample is larger than his, 278 to 127. (In both studies, the “official” lists of correspondents—all of which were misleading—were sifted to eliminate those who did not actually work as Washington correspondents. My figure for the total number of bona fide correspondents is 634, not the 1,500 usually cited.) In most significant respects, however the studies are similar. The same techniques—primarily interviews and questionnaires—were used in both, and many of the same questions were asked. And, perhaps most important, the motivation of both studies was the same: to discover the facts about an institution of American democracy.