Ego, Ambition, Frustration : AP Reporters Always Run--and Often to Other Jobs
Linda Deutsch has been a reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of Associated Press for 21 years.
She’s covered earthquakes, fires and murders, two Presidents and two presidential assassination attempts, the evacuation of Vietnam and one major trial after another: Patty Hearst. Charles Manson. The Pentagon Papers. John DeLorean. Evan Mecham.
Once, during a break in the Pentagon Papers trial, Deutsch was running to a telephone to call her office when she overheard another reporter in the courtroom hallway ask, “What’s happening?”
A third reporter looked up and said, “Nothing. That’s the wires--always running.”
True enough. Wire service reporters always seem to be running. That’s what Deutsch likes most about her work--working under deadline pressure.
“That’s a great high,” she says, “to come out . . . (after the) verdict in . . . a major trial and dictate the story (over the telephone). . . . I thrive on it.”
Dozens of other former AP staffers interviewed for this story echoed Deutsch’s sentiments. Even most vigorous critics of AP spoke affectionately of their AP experience, and they agreed, almost unanimously, that there is no journalistic training more valuable or more invigorating for a young reporter than working for AP.
AP, they said, is a journalistic boot camp. New reporters quickly learn the basic AP values of speed, accuracy and fairness; they learn to write clearly and concisely and to cover a wide variety of subjects in a single day, with a perpetual sense of urgency that keeps the adrenalin flowing.
“Even the constraints of a fairly rigid (AP) formula . . . can be good,” says Nils Bruzelius, who worked for AP from 1970-1973 and is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Boston Globe. “The discipline that imposes . . . doesn’t allow you to be self-indulgent.”
So why do most of AP’s best and brightest reporters ultimately leave?
One reason is that precisely because they gain such valuable experience at AP, they are sought by other news organizations--as Bruzelius was sought by the Globe.
The Los Angeles Times has more than 25 former AP reporters on its staff, including eight in foreign bureaus; Allan Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, says flatly, “We hold AP’s foreign staff in such high regard that anyone who does well there is automatically a candidate for an opening here if he or she is interested.”
Why They Move On
But opportunity is only one reason many of AP’s top reporters go elsewhere. The other reasons?
AP reporters are largely anonymous. Most newspapers don’t run their bylines, just the logo or “By Associated Press” or “From the Associated Press” credit line--and often not even that much.
“There’s no question it’s a disadvantage to an AP reporter,” says Walter Mears, former Pulitzer Prize-winning chief of AP’s Washington bureau and now executive editor of AP. “The people that you’re writing about do not read what you write in print.”
AP reporters in major cities are also paid considerably less than their counterparts on many daily newspapers. Although AP says its wages are higher than newspapers in 40 of the 50 states, AP reporters in some of the other 10 states often lag $10,000 a year or more behind their newspaper competitors.
Just as some reporters ultimately leave AP in search of more money and greater ego-gratification, so some--many--young reporters initially join AP because they know they can go far there--fast. They can start at AP with considerably less professional experience than many major papers require, and--because AP has a large Washington staff (109 reporters, editors and photographers) and more foreign bureaus than the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post combined--they may have a chance at a Washington or overseas assignment early in their careers.
Frustration Sets In
But some former AP reporters say that once a reporter has had a major assignment, frustration often sets in.
One reason: The logical career step to which a good AP reporter might aspire is bureau chief. But an AP bureau chief is “far less . . . a writer and a reporter than . . . a salesman,” says Lewis Simons, who worked for AP from 1965 to 1971 and is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.
When Simons was AP bureau chief in Kuala Lumpur, he says, “I found myself selling AP services to little Malay . . . and Chinese-language papers . . . and, even worse . . . having to run around and collect the bills at the end of the month.”
Even as reporters, there are frustrations at AP. Since AP’s primary role continues to be coverage of daily news stories, many reporters who want to do major investigative projects just don’t have the time to do them. In addition, because the same AP stories are published in hundreds of newspapers, large and small, AP reporters say they are encouraged to write simply, to the lowest common denominator. Cliches and superficiality often abound.
“If the Kansas City Milkman can’t understand it, the dispatch is badly written,” says an old wire service reporter in a 1950 novel “The Kansas City Milkman,’ written by Reynolds Packard, a former UPI foreign correspondent.
Although AP writing has improved considerably in recent years and there are a number of excellent prose stylists on the staff--especially on the AP Newsfeatures team--much AP writing remains “straightforward and dull as hell” in the words of Jack Willard’s “The Wire God,” another novel about wire services.
AP reporters also complain about routinely having to write several versions of a breaking news story in a single day, updating it every time there’s a new development and rarely having enough time to do all the reporting they should do or write it as carefully or as stylishly as they would like.
The frantic pace at AP, especially in the smaller bureaus, where one or two reporters may each write a dozen or more stories a day, can be as enervating as it is exciting.
“It’s frustrating to do a story in pieces,” says James Gerstenzang, an AP reporter from 1970 to 1984 and now a member of the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau. “You never knew if anyone would use that final version, and by then, you’d written it three times and were tired of it. It’s nice not to have to write until you’ve made all the calls.”
Reporters who like to write investigative stories or other stories that challenge the Establishment generally complain the most about AP; many walk away from AP unhappy, convinced that AP is reluctant to break ground on certain kinds of controversial stories for fear of being criticized by editors of member newspapers--who are, simultaneously AP’s employers and its paying customers.
AP executives angrily deny this charge, but it was voiced over and over in the course of interviews for this story, voiced by current AP reporters and editors and by former AP reporters who have gone on to write books or to work for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder, Reuters, the New York Daily News, Newsweek, NBC, ABC, the Portland Oregonian and other news organizations.
One story cited by several of these reporters was a 1984 account of the scheduled launch of a military intelligence satellite. AP had the story, but when the Defense Department asked AP executives not to run it, on grounds of national security, they complied.
Others Support Post
NBC also withheld the story. But the Washington Post published it. Only then did AP (and NBC) use it.
Other newspapers around the country supported the Post, saying it was unlikely the stories contained anything the Russians didn’t already know.
Another example of AP “timidity” cited by critics inside and outside the organization occurred four months earlier, when President Reagan, not realizing he was speaking into an open microphone before a radio address to the nation, said jokingly: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
AP had that story first, too, but didn’t use it either. AP executives say they withheld it because they felt bound by ground rules stipulating that anything the President said before he began his address was off the record. But others at AP--including Gregory Nokes, who wrote the story--say those rules didn’t apply to print journalists, only to the electronic media handling communications for the speech; Nokes says he doesn’t recall the issue even coming up during discussions of the story.
Nokes finally told a reporter for another news organization about the story, knowing that when that organization ran the story, AP would run it, too--quoting the other organization. That’s exactly what happened.
Nokes, now national political correspondent for the Portland Oregonian, says he understands why AP handled this particular story as it did since he didn’t personally hear the President’s comments. But other critics say AP is often more comfortable quoting other news organizations than running a sensitive story under its own imprimatur--a charge AP officials deny.
Perhaps the most controversial charges involving timidity at AP are those made by Robert Parry, now of Newsweek, and Brian Barger, now of United Press International, both former members of the AP bureau in Washington.
Parry and Barger say that before the Iran-Contra scandal broke in late 1986, AP editors discouraged, delayed and censored their groundbreaking stories on Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s clandestine and allegedly illegal activities on behalf of the Contras in Nicaragua.
AP executives insist that these charges aren’t true, and as proof of AP’s interest in the Contra issue, they point to dozens of Contra stories by Parry and Barger that ran on the AP wire.
But Parry and Barger cite several stories and story suggestions that were, they say, either ignored, killed or watered down, and several other past and present AP staffers support their charges.
Nokes, who worked for AP from 1961 to 1986--the last 15 years in the Washington bureau--says Parry and Barger “might very well have sorted out the Iran-Contra affair” before anyone had they been “encouraged instead of discouraged by their editors.”
Parry, Barger and their supporters say one explanation for AP’s behavior may have been management concern for AP correspondent Terry Anderson, held hostage in Lebanon since March, 1985.
‘Can Only Hurt’
AP says Anderson’s plight hasn’t affected their news report, but Mears, the AP executive editor, wrote a memo to his top editors in November, 1986, that mentioned Anderson and said, in part: “We will do no investigative reporting about the inside details of efforts to gain freedom for American hostages still held in Lebanon. . . . Reporting about secret channels of communication . . . can only hurt the people who have been kidnaped.”
Moreover, top AP executives were meeting privately with North to discuss Anderson’s plight at the same time that Parry and Barger were working on their stories on North and the Contras. Might North have intimated to these AP executives that stories on covert U.S. activities abroad could jeopardize Anderson’s life? Might AP executives have worried that such stories could diminish North’s interest in helping to free Anderson?
AP says no. To suggest that “we were somehow editing the AP wire to suit Ollie North” is absolutely wrong, in the words of Louis D. Boccardi, president and general manager of AP.
But the man who Parry and Barger say was the biggest roadblock on their Contra stories--Charles J. Lewis, chief of AP’s Washington bureau, who is widely criticized for this and other matters by present and former bureau members alike--met many times with North at the same time he was directly supervising stories and assignments in which Parry and Barger were investigating North’s allegedly illegal activity.
Wasn’t that at least a potential conflict of interest?
“If you wanted to look at it that way and see a problem, I can see that somebody might see that there was a problem,” Boccardi says. “But in fact . . . there was not a single thing ever done or not done that grew out of any conversation with Oliver North.”
Getting Little Attention
AP’s attitude toward Parry’s and Barger’s work may, in fact, have resulted from more mundane concerns.
With the exception of the Miami Herald, no papers were giving prominent play to North’s clandestine activities before the Iran-Contra story exploded. When so volatile and sensitive a story isn’t legitimized by publication in the New York Times or the Washington Post, editors elsewhere often tend to minimize its importance.
Critics say that’s particularly true of editors at AP, given AP’s sensitivity to the concerns of their member editors.
“Being out front . . . involves risks,” says Marc Charney of the New York Times, who worked for AP from 1969 to 1984. “Everybody at AP has had a story rejected until someone else ran it. Then you get a panic call. ‘Where the hell is that story? Why don’t we have it?”’
Seymour Hersh calls AP’s treatment of Parry and Barger “a perfect, classic example (of) where the AP simply couldn’t tolerate people who were ahead of the curve (on a controversial story).”
Hersh, who worked for AP from 1962 to 1967 and still considers that experience “invaluable,” won a Pulitzer Prize with Dispatch News Service in 1970 for his coverage of the My Lai massacre--a story he says he couldn’t have written for AP (a sentiment voiced by many other former AP reporters who later won Pulitzers for other news organizations).
‘Timid on Vietnam,’
Although two AP reporters and three AP photographers won Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage of the war in Vietnam, Hersh says some AP editors were “timid on Vietnam.”
Sometimes, Hersh says, he deliberately wrote his more controversial Vietnam stories late in the day, after these editors had gone home, so he could be sure the stories would run on the wire and not be withheld or “watered down.”
But Boccardi says: “Reporters and editors have been warring for a long time. To extend that into this accusation of institutional timidity and institutional inability to do a hard story is, I think, grossly unfair.”
Boccardi is certainly right that some reporters are constantly at war with their editors. Many reporters are contentious, chronic malcontents, convinced that their editors lack both courage and good judgment. Investigative reporters, in particular, are much like criminal prosecutors--absolutely certain that the targets of their investigations are evil . . . and equally certain that the stories they have written prove that point, the reservations of their seemingly timorous editors not withstanding.
Editors often have to rein in such reporters and insist that they provide more documentation and better sourcing for their allegations. (Several top AP editors insist that this, not institutional timidity, was the real issue with the stories on the Contras by Parry and Barger.)
Some reporters have written good investigative stories on controversial subjects at AP, with the full support of their editors, but others have left AP and gone to news organizations that gave them both more time and more encouragement than they felt they had at AP.
Pulitzers Won Elsewhere
AP has won only two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting in the last 20 years--neither for investigative reporting--but many former AP reporters have won Pulitzers for other news organizations in that time; former AP reporters have won 11 Pulitzers in the last nine years.
The Pulitzers certainly aren’t the only (or even, necessarily, the best) measure of journalistic quality, but they are one measure--and a respected, prestigious measure at that.
James Polk of NBC, who worked for AP from 1962 to 1971 and won a Pulitzer at the Washington Star in 1974, says he quit AP because he had trouble getting his investigative stories on the AP wire.
“There’s a ceiling on growth at AP,” he says. “There’s only so far you can go before your initiative bumps into their caution.”
Gaylord Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, who worked for AP from 1962 to 1975 and won a Pulitzer at The Times in 1978, says the problem for investigative reporters at AP may involve individual temperament as much as institutional timidity.
“AP . . . has some difficulty handling hard-charging, aggressive reporters,” Shaw says. “The very nature of the AP animal requires a degree of caution. You’re serving so many masters . . . (with) so many different perspectives.”
AP does, indeed, have many masters--starting with the 18 newspaper publishers and four broadcast executives on its board of directors. On a daily basis, AP’s masters are the thousands of editors, publishers, news directors and other media executives who own and manage their member newspapers and who--as a group, politically and journalistically--tend to be more conservative than most reporters.
AP reflects the consensus of these members/owners, and critics say the risk of offending--and possibly losing--any one or several of them can make AP reluctant to aggressively pursue certain kinds of stories.
When this is suggested to AP executives, they insist that it’s not so and they cite as proof of AP’s commitment to investigative reporting on potentially controversial stories the AP exclusive last November on the possible conflict of interest involving U.S. Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg.
They also cite a a yearlong, nationwide investigation AP did last year that involved 67 AP reporters and resulted in more than 300 stories documenting the “dangerously burdened and troubled” court-supervised guardianship system for America’s elderly.
But critics say the Ginsburg story was “safe” because it was provable--based on official documents--and they say the guardians series was also “a safe topic,” in the words of Richard T. Pienciak of the New York Daily News, who worked for AP from 1972 to 1985.
“It’s easy to get people up in arms over mistreatment of old people,” Pienciak says, echoing other critics of the series. “There’s . . . nobody to come back at (you). You beat up on the system and there’s your story.”
On stories like Col. North and the Contras, military payloads on the shuttle, Watergate, My Lai, American chemical and biological warfare and other stories involving covert and possible illegal government activity, critics say AP is often far less aggressive, largely for fear of unsettling its members.
Boccardi denies this charge, and he argues that the symbiotic relationship AP has with its members is one major reason AP has thrived while rival United Press International--whose clients have no ownership position in it--has steadily declined. AP members have a vested interest--and a certain trust--in AP because they both own it and contribute to it.
Boccardi, who joined AP in 1967 and became president in 1985, works hard to nurture that interest and that trust, and he is widely praised for having presided over the transformation of AP to the multifaceted communications empire it is today. He is regarded as an intelligent, efficient administrator, a shrewd politician, a good communicator and an excellent editor.
Nevertheless, some editors of member newspapers criticize the daily AP news report.
Bill Kovach, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, says AP has still “not risen to the level it should . . . especially in covering important regional stories.” Jonathan Friendly, managing editor of the Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., says AP is “increasingly behind and less enterprising than the newspapers in our area in news, in features, in photography . . . virtually everything.”
Other editors have similar criticisms.
But Robert Maynard, publisher of the Oakland Tribune and a member of the AP board of directors, says AP has shown “dramatic improvement” in the last three years; many other editors agree.
Maynard praises AP for being in the vanguard of journalism’s technological revolution, as well as for “getting better and better at doing in-depth reporting . . . significantly upgrading business (coverage), the foreign report and enterprise (reporting)” and hiring and promoting women and minorities (after a lawsuit filed by AP women employes in the 1970s).
“Those sorts of things weren’t going on before Boccardi and Walter Mears became the two top guys at AP,” Maynard says.
Indeed, a few members of the AP board of directors pushed for Boccardi’s appointment to the top job in 1976, when Wes Gallagher retired from the presidency. But Keith Fuller won the job instead, and while Fuller is largely responsible for the creation of the AP satellite system, AP editors and reporters say he seemed to take little interest in the actual news report.
What he did do, among other things, was travel around the country making extremely conservative political speeches that many at AP feared would compromise the wire service’s traditional nonpartisanship.
Owen Ullman, an AP reporter from 1963 to 1983 and now the White House reporter for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, says he “detected a subtle discouragement” of stories critical of President Reagan during Fuller’s tenure, and a few other reporters agree. But AP editors who worked directly for Fuller say he neither ordered nor wanted his own political views to influence the AP news report, and there is no evidence that this happened on any systematic basis.
Personal Praise, Criticism
Nevertheless, it’s clear that AP editors and reporters are more comfortable with Boccardi’s avoidance of any partisan statements or activities.
Boccardi isn’t shy about sharing his views on other issues, though, and although he isn’t as directly involved in the daily news report as Gallagher was, it is not uncommon for him to send reporters personal words of praise and criticism on their stories.
For all the changes in the “new” AP--”electronic darkrooms,” high-speed wires, massive enterprise reporting projects--Boccardi and his managing editor, William E. Ahearn, continue to think that AP’s “basic mission,” in Ahearn’s words, is to do the most fair and accurate job possible providing “the spot news of the day . . . coverage of the legislature, the two-car fatal (accident)” and other routine events . . . preferably better and quicker than anyone else.
Thus, both men are delighted that, in recent months, AP has had exclusive stories on the indictment of Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega and on the attempt by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) to have his colleagues appropriate $8 million for a project in France supported by a campaign contributor.
Not even the decline of archrival UPI has diminished Ahearn’s zeal to be first on the news of the day--and to indulge in a bit of old-fashioned, competitive skulduggery on occasion in an effort to be both first and best.
Ahearn has been known to telephone the UPI general desk and pretend to be an editor from a Southern newspaper that subscribes to UPI. He tells UPI that “his paper” didn’t receive a particular UPI story--sometimes a major, breaking news story, sometimes just a weather story--and he asks UPI to read him its lead paragraph on the story.
Then he hangs up and makes sure AP’s lead is better.
Tom Lutgen of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this story.
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