News Etiquette: No More Mr. Nice Guy

This year the etiquette of covering politics has changed.

Maybe letting more girls go along with the "boys on the bus" accounts for the difference. Not until the 1980 presidential campaign did women political reporters stop being an oddity--and really not until 1984 did the atmosphere of a men's club finally dissipate.

The change could also come from the rise of "voyeuristic journalism," with personal details of important people's lives carefully detailed by People magazine, Rupert Murdochian publications or even lesser weekly lights. Straight newspapers and TV networks have to keep up--it's too embarrassing to get scooped by a publication that also headlines wonder diets and dogs that fly.

"Think about the difference between Life magazine covering politics in 1964 and People magazine covering politics in 1984--that's a really big difference," one political veteran said.

Or blame the etiquette change on the election-to-election coverage phenomena. Now it takes four years for someone to run for President, and that leaves a lot of time and places to make mistakes.

And no shrugs at the word etiquette. Etiquette, civility, politeness-- all formal words that protect people from the baser elements, in themselves and in others. Etiquette is simply a fancy-dancy word that translates much tougher--it means the forms authoritatively prescribed to be observed in social or official life. But these forms have to correspond to what is actually taking place.

Life along the presidential campaign trail is both social and official--and maybe, one observer said, that's where the problem came in. Signing on, either to work on or cover a presidential campaign, is joining a small, closed society--weeks on end of seeing the same people, traveling on the same plane, eating and drinking together when the day ends.

The best stories, as everyone used to know, came just then, late at night. They were the ones that never made the paper, that got traded when the 14-hour days ended in a bar in a Holiday Inn. When women became a regular part of those exchanges, there was a change in tone, in tenor--and certainly just how much "guy talk" got remembered the next day.

The freedom of those exchanges began to be limited in the mid-'70s. Stories about the personal lives of former Presidents combined with the Watergate intrigue and made Americans a nation of political junkies. Hollywood began to be fascinated with Washington, vice-versa--and Americans caught both parts of the act. Readers wanted details. Reporters were more under the gun to tell everything they knew.

'Always Be Careful'

Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's press secretary, was clever enough to understand the trend early. One Carter staffer this week recalled Powell's warning: "Always be careful talking to reporters, especially in bars. The line you think may be so cute over beers may not be quite so cute in the Washington Post the next morning."

It is this formalization of once-informal discussions of the too-personal parts of candidates' lives that has even veteran pols reeling. "The thing that is so striking since the Hart-Rice thing," one network political staffer said, "is that what used to take place late at night over too many drinks now takes place as part of the normal, daily work of what you and I do. There are phone calls about it throughout the working day, meetings with senior (campaign) people about subjects that 10 years ago would have been totally taboo."

Another pol translated the change in mores this way--"Realize that no candidate or staffer will ever again tell an ethnic joke--no matter how off-the-record the session." The one exception might be if the politician tells a joke about his own ethnicity, such as President Reagan's recent well-quoted one about the Irish.

Certainly no sexist joke can be told--especially because it was estimated that women journalists could make up a sizable minority of the press corps covering politics this year. In the 1964 campaign--and for years later--veteran White House UPI reporter Helen Thomas was consigned to cover only the First Lady, not the President. In 1972, one campaign veteran recalled, frequently only a few women were aboard the McGovern campaign plane--and some of the few were the stewardesses, who, he claimed, dated both reporters and the campaign staff.

Women can be treated in one way if they simply are along to serve coffee and date. The "bimbo factor" gets lessened considerably when women are equal to men, when women are asking questions and writing stories. The etiquette of everyday coverage got changed because the society got enlarged--and different rules were called for.

No Accommodations

Just how primitive was the treatment of women reporters 10 or 15 years ago? One example: In 1976, one woman reporter recalled, she was assigned to Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign--but wasn't allowed on the small private plane that was ferrying him and a few reporters around the state. As she recalled it, her exclusion was based on the fact that the plane did not have an actual bathroom--but merely some kind of a makeshift arrangement "with a pipe."

With this kind of a background, it seems natural that when women were admitted to the all-male club, the rules were at least going to bend. And any time that a change in social mores happens, it takes a while for the sediment to settle, for etiquette to be worked out.

When Gary Hart was asked about "adultery," it was supposed to be a one-time question--one brought on by his supposed life style. Within weeks, that question got asked of every other candidate, a major newspaper sent all potential candidates a personal questionnaire and once again the rumor mills cranked.

How far can it go? How probing can questions about a candidate's life be?

The limits are gone--at least temporarily. "Civility and respect for a candidate's privacy are gone," the network staffer said. "We can ask anything--but nobody is asking about a candidate's politics, just his peculiarities."

It is somewhat ironic that movie stars, tennis stars, television stars, opera stars and just about every other public personality can fool around, have children out of wedlock, change spouses as often as they change their clothes--and still be considered models of deportment.

Elizabeth Taylor has been married seven times--and she keeps getting invited to the White House and named on the "most-admired" lists. For two decades, Warren Beatty has had women falling at his feet--both in movies like "Shampoo" and in private life.

In 1984, the joke making the Hollywood rounds was that "Warren Beatty wants to be Gary Hart. And Gary Hart wants to be Warren Beatty."

Perhaps the healthy thing about wanting to know every aspect of a potential President's private life is that Americans can still tell the difference.

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