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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Tactical Shift   

Washington bureau chiefs have redeployed their forces to long-abandoned and newly created beats in the wake of the terrorist attacks.


By Stephen Seplow
Stephen Seplow, a longtime editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former news editor in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, is a Philadelphia writer.      

Washington bureau chiefs have redeployed their forces to long-abandoned and newly created beats in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Sergio Bustos was confident on his turf. He was Gannett's man in Washington for two papers in Arizona, the Republic and the Tucson Citizen, and one in Texas, the El Paso Times. That meant he devoted a lot of his reporting time to the murky issues of immigration policy – a subject he understood well.

Things changed after September 11. Bustos, 39, became Gannett's man at State. He explains with a slight laugh: "I was asked to go to the State Department and see how foreign policy will be put together on an ongoing basis."

But in truth, he said during a conversation early in October, "I'm still trying to find out what door I go in. Is it 23rd Street, or is it C Street?"

Aaron Zitner couldn't have been happier before September 11. He was covering stem cell research for the Los Angeles Times, and he loved it. The country, Zitner recalls excitedly, was engaged "in a rich conversation about what it is to be human...a debate about the moral status of the embryo. For me, it was fascinating."

And then, he says, his voice falling, "it all went away on September 11. All that summer's worth of work went away."

Zitner is now covering homeland defense. We talked in his office on I Street the day before news broke that someone had tried to mail anthrax to NBC's Tom Brokaw – and before anthrax was found at other networks, in congressional office buildings and at postal facilities – and Zitner didn't know that his reporting life was about to take another sharp turn.

He ticked off the components he envisioned in a broad new beat: intelligence, preparation against weapons of mass destruction, public health, critical infrastructure, hospitals, the bureaucracy. And, of course, the military.

Two weeks later, his beat had changed to "all anthrax all the time." (See "The Anthrax Enigma," page 18.) He sought to learn about the disease, about how public health laboratories deal with it, about anthrax as a weapon of terror.

Jeff Taylor, metropolitan editor of the Detroit Free Press, had never been based in Washington before September 11, although he had gone there often as an investigative reporter for the Free Press and the Kansas City Star. But in the late-night hours after the attacks, while he was still working on a local election story and the local angles of the World Trade Center terrorism, Free Press Executive Editor Robert McGruder asked if he wanted to go to Washington and run an investigative project for the Knight Ridder Washington bureau.

Taylor, 39, was in his car, headed for the National Press Building, the next morning. A wrong turn in the Washington area inadvertently brought him near the Pentagon. "There was that smell," he says, "and that's when it really hit me."

As these examples suggest, the Washington bureaus of newspapers and newspaper chains of all sizes and levels of ambition were transformed the moment American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Bureau chiefs scrambled to get reporters properly positioned – at State, Justice, Transportation, Health and Human Services. Regional reporters for papers in Indiana were suddenly covering homeland defense, and reporters accustomed to covering Congress were trying to develop sources at the Justice Department.

The challenge was intensified by the fact that, in recent years, news organizations have cut back significantly on covering the capital's departments and agencies, opting instead for wider-ranging, issue-oriented beats. (See "Where are the Watchdogs?" July/August.)

Nobody had enough reporters. How could they? The ones they did have were urgently trying to develop new specialties in the frenzied atmosphere of the biggest story anybody had ever seen. They often lacked the sources and the background they would have liked to have. But there was little time for reflection. The demand for copy – now! – was crushing.

When I asked David Shribman, the Boston Globe's bureau chief, whether he was doing things differently in his 13-person bureau, his Boston accent blared over the phone: "Everything has changed.... Nobody anticipated ever covering a story like this, and so there are no training manuals and no veterans sitting around telling us how they did it last time."

The big papers with the big bureaus, like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, with full-time reporters on national security and justice and other key areas, were obviously better situated than most.

"We were in good shape, but not as good as I would have liked to be," says Doyle McManus, head of the Los Angeles Times bureau, with some 35 reporters. Few reinforcements were sent from Los Angeles, largely because McManus believes that newcomers would not have been useful in the capital, where reporting is so dependent on sources.

Tom Infield, a talented and experienced Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, understands well what McManus is talking about. Infield, who has covered a number of military-related stories, was sent to Knight Ridder's Washington bureau to report on weapons and how they work. "I have a list of experts," he says, "knowledgeable people. But people at the Pentagon or State? Nope. So I had to work on stories in the public domain. I could be part of a team."

But McManus himself did manage to sign up one very well-sourced reporter for occasional freelance work: George C. Wilson, longtime defense correspondent for the Washington Post, who went on to write for the Army Times.

As for the other bureau chiefs, Carl Leubsdorf, the head of the Dallas Morning News bureau, summed up the feeling of many: "You always wish you had someone somewhere else. If someone has something we can't match, we put it in our story. We'd like to do it all ourselves, but there are realistic limits." To stretch those limits, a handful of reporters came in from Dallas for a couple of weeks, and military, airline, anthrax and investigative desks were set up in Dallas, with reporters from Washington and various departments in Dallas contributing.

Vicki Walton-James replaced James Warren as head of the 13-reporter Chicago Tribune bureau on September 19 (see Bylines, November), just a week after the WTC attack. She says, "Virtually everyone is on some part of the story. I just wish I had more people. When something like this happens you always want more." The Tribune did send three reporters to Washington from Chicago, and the home office carried a lot of the load on aviation coverage with staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for air transportation stories. Two Washington reporters, Stephen Hedges and John Crewdson, were sent overseas to pursue investigative angles.

Jill Abramson, chief of the New York Times bureau, declined to be interviewed. A spokesman for the paper said she was "consumed with the news report." But the Times, too, sent in help from New York and brought foreign and national correspondents to Washington to assist.

The reinforcements included Tim Weiner, who was based in Mexico City before September 11. Being a reporter who had spent years, in his words, "covering nukes, spooks and kooks," he was told to be on the first plane he could get to Washington.

Weiner had written in the past from Afghanistan and about Osama bin Laden, so he, unlike some, had experience and background when suddenly reassigned to intelligence and foreign policy. "One of the great things about journalism is you never know what you'll be doing when you wake up," Weiner says. "It's also one of the terrible things."

To prove the point, a few weeks later he was reporting from Pakistan.

hen McManus talks about directing the L.A. Times' coverage, he talks like he's on the front lines. It's a "moving target," he says, requiring "tactical shifts." So investigative reporters came off of their investigations to look at airport safety and to help on national security. And others lent a hand to supplement foreign policy and defense coverage.

The pressure of this story, says McManus, "has exposed the strong points and the weak points of each paper."

Among the Times' blessings, he says, were reporters like Josh Meyer, who was sent in from Los Angeles, and Robin Wright, based in Washington, who had already written about terrorism in general and Osama bin Laden in particular. McManus took the Fifth when asked about the Times' weak points.

Zitner, thoughtful and enthusiastic, is the kind of reporter who takes the broad view. Before writing about stem cells, he covered the genome project, a subject he calls "too important to leave to the science writers. It was about religion, ethics, medicine, science."

Zitner is accustomed to staking a claim to his piece of territory and then mining it by himself. This story, though, is too big; nobody has his own territory. And Zitner finds that a little disconcerting. "Before, within the paper, I had a story that I had ownership of," he said in our first conversation. "Now, it's hard to get on any train that doesn't collide with another train that some editor has sent out. Some people see this as a great opportunity; some want their old jobs back. I'm glad for all I'm learning, but I'll be glad to go back."

Drew Brown feels just the opposite. Brown, 36, a former Ranger who served in Panama in 1989 in Operation Just Cause, covers Robins Air Force Base for Georgia's Macon Telegraph.

The Telegraph is a Knight Ridder paper, and nine days after the World Trade Center was destroyed, he received an e-mail from his editors in Macon. Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt and Bureau Chief Kathleen Carroll were looking for potential war correspondents with experience covering the military, particularly those who had combat experience.

"When I saw that," says Brown, who still wears his hair almost Ranger-short, "I almost jumped out of my skin. I knew this was a job made for me."

A week later he was in Washington working on military stories, hoping eventually to be sent abroad. (He was; in November he was reporting from Uzbekistan.) Brown, because of his Macon assignment, has some Pentagon and congressional sources, but even so he laments: "You make calls. They may call you back, they may not."

Still, because he had first-hand experience, Brown could bring authority to stories explaining military tactics and strategy. "Who comes from an 80,000-circulation paper to coming here to a cover a war?" he asks. "This is a career break of a lifetime."

The Boston Globe, like most Washington bureaus, had no full-time reporters at the Pentagon or Justice. To cover the former, Shribman was able to hire Bryan Bender, a former Washington bureau chief for Jane's Defence Weekly, on a temporary basis. Bender, Shribman says, came to work 40 minutes after he was called.

Shribman redeployed congressional reporter Wayne Washington to Justice and the FBI. He had occasionally branched out before for justice-related stories, but after September 11, "all other responsibilities fell by the wayside," says Washington, 34. He covers the press conferences, he covers the briefings, and "I try to get whatever information is available." But there's no question, he concedes, that reporters who had been devoted full time to Justice and the FBI before September 11 had significant advantages afterward.

"It is sometimes frustrating to read that someone has been given a briefing by some high-level official, and they had access to officials that other media didn't have access to," Washington says. "But I press and try to get as much information for the Globe as I can."

Another Globe reporter, John Donnelly, had spoken often with Shribman about covering terrorism. In Afghanistan last year, he visited the site of one of Osama bin Laden's safe houses and wrote about the terrorist mastermind. But global health was his specialty. "I think Washington is mostly pack journalism," Donnelly says, adding that both terrorism and health have been "woefully undercovered."

After September 11 his beat became a combination of diplomacy and terrorism. "The emphasis has been to give people perspective and breaking news," he says. Perspective stories have included pieces about the United States' relationship with the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

The Globe didn't have enough people to cover every aspect of the story. When we spoke in October, Shribman said he saw the paper's role as "helping readers try to fathom the unfathomable. Not that we fully understand it ourselves."

To aid that effort, Anne Kornblut returned from her honeymoon in Baja California to pick up her beat at the White House. It wasn't easy. She and her husband, Mark Orchard, a BBC producer, chartered a plane for Tijuana, walked across the border, took a cab to San Diego, rented a car to get to Los Angeles, got a flight to Philadelphia and then drove to Washington. They were back by Friday. "We felt like we missed a lot," she says. "As it turned out, it was just the beginning."

Things changed dramatically at the Scripps Howard bureau for Jessica Wehrman.

Until September 11, Wehrman was the Washington reporter for Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press and also covered education. Two weeks later, she was in charge of homeland defense for the chain.

Early on, Wehrman had trouble getting people to call her back. But a couple of weeks later, she seemed past the uncertainties of carving out a new beat. She said she had found a rhythm, doing stories on security at ports, security at schools, mail security and one on various state efforts at homeland defense.

Of course, she says, "if there's a way to get an Indiana angle, I do."

Leubsdorf's philosophy in running the Dallas Morning News' 11-person bureau has been to cover a few institutions, such as the White House, but mostly subjects, such as the economy or national security. And that hasn't changed too much after September 11. He didn't assign a full-time person to the State Department, for instance, because he didn't have enough manpower and he figured that anything really important would come out of the White House.

But he did know before September 11 that he wanted to cover the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory agencies, and he had hired Jim Morris for the job.

Morris, 44, had been working for U.S. News & World Report. His hiring hadn't even been announced by the time of the terrorist attacks, and he wasn't supposed to start for another couple of weeks. But when he called the bureau to see if he was wanted early, the bureau chief put him to work immediately. "We're happy to have him," says Leubsdorf.

Morris had written about aviation and airport security at U.S. News, and he was able to contribute from almost the moment he arrived in the Morning News bureau. "It was a very unusual way to start a job," says Morris. Ordinarily, "you sort of ease into a job, you have a few weeks to figure out what to do. There was no question of what I should do. The FAA and airline safety is all I've done."

Probably no bureau was beefed up more than Knight Ridder's. Knight Ridder, a company for which I worked 31 years before accepting a buyout from the Philadelphia Inquirer in September, has been criticized in recent years for retreating from its high ground as the chain that put quality above profits (see "Dimming Beacon?" May). But with this story, it seemed to return to its roots.

P. Anthony Ridder, the company's much-vilified chairman and CEO, conducted an early conference call with editors in Washington and at his largest papers. His message: Use whatever resources are needed to cover the story.

Taylor, the Detroit editor, was one of 21 reporters and editors hustled to Washington from across the country to work on the story – some for many weeks, some for shorter stints. (Salaries are paid by the home papers, expenses by Knight Ridder.) Additional reporters were sent overseas and to New York.

Five reporters were assigned to Taylor's team, three from the San Jose Mercury News, one from the Kansas City Star and one member of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau. Like Taylor, the four other visitors had never been based in Washington, but they are all driven and resourceful. All five visitors have won Pulitzers.

Eventually, they produced a package of stories that examined how and why the priorities of the airlines and the government had shifted almost totally toward convenient, fast and cheap travel and away from protecting against hijacking and terrorism.

"It's been exhausting," Taylor says. "We're very proud of some of the work we've managed to do, but it comes under such a quick time frame that it's hard to balance our desire to make this as good as it can be and do it as quickly as we can."

If the events of September 11 brought Taylor and his crew to Washington for something new, they helped to bring Sergio Bustos full circle. Bustos, the Gannett Arizona and Texas reporter who suddenly found himself at the State Department, was still having a frustrating time in Foggy Bottom when I spoke to him a second time a few weeks later. But his normal beat – immigration – had gotten very hot, and Bustos was all over it.

President Bush's earlier determination to make it easier for Mexicans here illegally to stay legally had pretty much blown up with the World Trade Center. And both Houses were suddenly considering legislation to tighten immigration rules. "Immigration legislation just started to bubble up," says Bustos.

He sounded reassured by that.

Stephen Seplow, a longtime editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former news editor in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, is a Philadelphia writer.