A nervy reporter named William ("Fatty") Price planted himself at the front gate of the White House to buttonhole the President's callers as they emerged. That was in 1895 when Cleveland was President and it was the beginning of modern White House press coverage.
The history of Washington press coverage was told last week in a thorough, readable, thoughtful book* by 37-year-old Delbert Clark, manager for the last eight years of the New York Times's Washington bureau. Less sociological than Leo Rosten's The Washington Correspondents, his book traces the astounding growth of the Washington press corps from the period when two Congressional stenographers served as part-time reporters, to the present when more than 500 elite newsmen enjoy semiofficial status. It does not spare correspondents' vanities and irresponsibilities nor "official efforts to conceal the unpalatable truth." Some of Delbert Clark's anecdotes and observations:
Invited In. The reporters who joined Fatty Price at the White House gate stayed out in the street, in fair weather and foul, for seven years until one blustery day in 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt looked out of the window, took pity on them, invited them in and gave them a cubbyhole to work in. Today the Government has provided special press quarters in every important Government building.
Temptations. Listed in the Congressional Directory, correspondents are invited to cocktails and dinners by ambassadors, senators, receive handsome gifts at Christmas, are asked for advice on momentous issues by important people. The best of them, after an initial period of giddiness, learn to defend themselves against such social lures. But a worse temptation, thinks Correspondent Clark, is the temptation for a correspondent to become first over-dignified, then over-deferential, finally timid, with a "growing inclination to accept statements at their face value, to permit invidious remarks to go unchallenged."
Roosevelt's Charm. Correspondent Clark's favorite story: As Heywood Broun left the White House he said to a friend, "Did you notice he agreed with everything I said?" Replied his friend. "No he didn't; he just smiled."
Since correspondents' first enthusiasms for Franklin Roosevelt have cooled they realize "how slight is their foothold, how easy it would be, in times of genuine crisis. to ... reduce their freedom to the slender confines of the Constitutional verbiage." When President Roosevelt last year barred Correspondent Paul Mallon from White House press conferences, only one to speak out was the Times's Charles Kurd. Moral is, thinks Clark, that Washington correspondents need an ethical organization like the American Medical Association.
Handouts. There is now one Government press agent for every two bona fide correspondents and they tend more & more to substitute propaganda for fresh information. Their deluge of mimeographed "handouts," according to the Bureau of the Budget, now costs the Government about $1,000,000 a year.*