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Deborah Orin has been The New York Post’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief since 1988, and has covered every presidential campaign since 1980. She worked briefly for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News while at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, then spent three years at the Long Island Press covering local government.
Today, Orin discusses snobby broadsheets, a non-palsy White House, and stories that write themselves as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about the election.
Liz Cox Barrett: Your stories are typically in the 300-500 word range. How do you approach political coverage, knowing you have a relatively small amount of space to work with? How does writing for a tabloid affect your approach?
Deborah Orin: Writing short means you have to focus fast on what really matters and never worry about duplicating the wires or the nightly news. Sometimes it will be the same story but often it won’t. In fact, you’d rather it wasn’t. A good guideline is to make sure you tell your readers the very first thing that you’d tell your own best beloved or colleagues if you were calling home to chew over the news of the day. Or standing around the water cooler gossiping.
It’s fascinating how often broadsheets snobbily refuse to share that kind of water-cooler stuff with their readers. A classic example came in Thursday’s New York papers when The Post and the Daily News front-paged Bill Clinton’s belated admission on Monica Lewinsky: “I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could.”
By contrast, The New York Times buried that story as a tiny little piece way back in the paper as if to haughtily say, this is beneath our notice because it’s too tabloid. That’s ridiculous. Bill Clinton is one of the major figures of our era and this was a central issue in his presidency. Besides, the Times, just like all the rest of us, has been busily speculating on how Clinton’s autobiography, interviews and book tour will impact the 2004 presidential race — the Times even had a front-page story this week on the subject. Now we get the first interview from that book tour — the first real taste of what the impact might be, with real news from Clinton, via Dan Rather and CBS — and the Times chooses to bury it. That’s a classic example of the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet.
LCB: You’ve been covering the White House since 1988. What’s your take on Ken Auletta’s assessment — as presented in his January 2004 New Yorker piece titled “Fortress Bush” — that the Bush White House is unusually skilled at “keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda?” How does this administration’s dealings with the press compare to administrations past?
DO: Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t see that much difference. Every White House tries to manage the news and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Bush’s press people make less effort than Clinton’s did to be palsy with reporters — I think because they believe (rightly) that the White House press corps tilts distinctly Democratic and generally doesn’t like Bush or his policies, so Bush’s team can’t expect to get cut much slack no matter what they do. Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry was the best I’ve ever seen at using his friendship with reporters to benefit his boss — and himself.
I do think the Bush White House makes a big mistake by minimizing full-scale press conferences and interviews, especially since [Bush] does well in those forums. Earlier this year you saw the price that Bush paid for avoiding the press for months — he looked rusty and ill at ease. Now that he’s more accessible, he also seems more relaxed.
LCB: In addition to reporting for the Post, you’ve done some talking head work, appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hardball,” and other cable shows analyzing the campaigns. How do you approach each of these jobs differently? How do you draw those lines for readers or listeners?
DO: It’s a different way of talking about the same issues — I don’t say anything different on cable than I would in print, but you get to do it in a more immediate and personal way. The back-and-forth can also help get you to the heart of the issue. The TV stuff that I love best is C-SPAN — it’s always fascinating to do their shows and gauge from the phone calls what people are really thinking and talking about. You get some of the very best questions — sometimes very tough — on C-SPAN.