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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

The Breakfast Club   

Print reporters are welcome at Godfrey Sperling’s newsmaker breakfasts, a Washington, D.C., institution--unless they happen to work for the AP.

By Larry Arnold

Godfrey "Budge" Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor is a congenial octogenarian who welcomes the chance to mingle with a new generation of Washington reporters. He does not, however, look happy to meet me.

We are at the Capitol Hilton hotel, scene of today's 8 a.m. "Sperling Breakfast," a Washington tradition wherein journalists meet politicians over eggs and coffee. Sperling has hosted more than 3,000 of these breakfasts, and some noteworthy developments have taken place: In 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas prepared for a presidential run by bringing his wife, Hillary, to a breakfast to begin answering questions about their marital difficulties.

I am here 15 minutes early. I am wearing a suit. I have my press credentials. Having covered New Jersey politics for years, I am familiar with one of the guests--New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, who is here to talk tax cuts with fellow Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

But I can't do anything about who employs me--the Associated Press. At the Sperling Breakfast, that is a "flaw" that cannot be overcome. For 33 years, Budge Sperling has organized breakfasts where reporters can meet newsmakers. And for 33 years, he has not allowed the AP in.

Sperling questions why I am here and how I know about the breakfast. He explains that AP is not invited. A gentleman, he tries to convince me it's nothing personal. Eventually, he gives in, with conditions: I sit at the end of the table, ask no questions, and consider this a one-time exception. He invites me to partake of the breakfast buffet.

Dan Thomasson, former Washington bureau chief of Scripps Howard News Service, will have none of it. It's not right, he reminds Budge, that "general agencies" have a seat at the table.

I ask what he means by general agencies.

"The AP," he says.


Thomasson offers no other examples, turning instead to history. "This is not an AP function," he says. "They have never been part of this. I won't come if AP's going to be here."

Sperling's tolerance dissipates. He asks me to leave.

The Sperling Breakfast is an institution in the best and worst ways, a fixture of the Washington landscape still admired but no longer questioned. It is venerable to the point of being invulnerable, even among reporters who otherwise spend their days asking "why?" Sperling tells me I'm the first reporter in years to object to his invitation list.

When he writes columns about his breakfasts, Sperling cites one rule: no electronic media, meaning television. What he doesn't mention is his policy excluding wire services, which primarily means the Associated Press, the world's largest newsgathering organization.

The Sperling breakfast club does not like AP's immediacy. Anything newsworthy said at 8 a.m. in front of an AP reporter would be on the wire by noon, thus scooping the newspaper reporters whose stories would not appear until the following day.

The main course at Sperling breakfasts is insight and perspective, Sperling proudly points out. But breaking news, which Sperling calls an "added dessert," sometimes gets served.

At breakfast in 1968, Robert Kennedy displayed his anguished indecision over whether to run for president.

In 1973, a Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter told a breakfast gathering that he was going to run for president three years hence.

The news from a 1995 breakfast was that House Speaker Newt Gingrich had been upset over being seated at the rear of Air Force One on a trip to Israel, and that his pique had helped create the budget standoff that shut down the federal government.

One headline-making breakfast involved Whitman. At a Sperling gathering the morning after Whitman ousted Jim Florio as New Jersey governor in 1993, her campaign strategist, Ed Rollins, boasted that Republicans had successfully muffled the black vote by using "street money" to buy the silence of African American ministers.

The story--which Rollins immediately retracted--did make the AP wire that day, but only because a newspaper reporter called AP's New Jersey control bureau asking if Whitman had reacted to Rollins' claim. In other words, the reporter attended Sperling's breakfast, which excluded AP. Later in the day, the reporter utilized AP for what it is--a shared resource for all.

If anybody noticed the irony, it went unmentioned.

'In 1966, a stolid, slightly pompous Christian Science Monitor reporter named Godfrey Sperling started organizing breakfasts where he and some of his friends could meet with leading politicians and government officials," Timothy Crouse wrote in "The Boys on the Bus," his account of the 1972 presidential campaign through the eyes of traveling political reporters. The breakfasts were "on background," meaning guests were free to talk without fear of being quoted by name. Newsmakers like Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy would share in-depth observations with political writers from heavyweight newspapers.

"By 1970," Crouse wrote, "Sperling's breakfast club began to go to hell." Almost anybody could come, and the sessions were on the record, so guests were more careful with their words. However, in the early years when the list was more restrictive, some of the excluded reporters formed a rival group, facetiously named Political Writers for a Democratic Society. Its creators were Jack Germond, then chief political writer for Gannett, and Jules Witcover, then working for Newhouse newspapers.

Gannett and Newhouse, which didn't participate in the early days, each have a reporter here today breakfasting with Whitman and Huckabee. A lot can change over three decades, evidently. But still AP is not allowed in.

New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Newhouse-owned Star-Ledger of Newark, has a reporter here today. So does the state's No. 3 newspaper, the Record of Hackensack. Nos. 2 and 4 have eyes and ears here in the form of a reporter for Gannett News Service. In effect, the newspapers I would be here to represent are the 13 other dailies in New Jersey--papers such as the 25,000-circulation Gloucester County Times and the 9,000-circulation Bridgeton Evening News. And if Whitman or Huckabee served breaking-news-a-la-mode, my story would be made available to newspapers nationwide.

(As it turns out, no news is broken. Whitman and Huckabee are available to reporters later in the day on Capitol Hill and repeat much of what they say at breakfast. AP covers Sperling breakfasts like any other closed event--by checking with the speakers and those in attendance to learn what happened.)

Sperling may not want to admit it, but today's attendance list reflects how archaic his AP exclusion has become. Journalism has changed: where once there were newspapers and "The Wire," now there is a crowded middle ground of syndicates, news services, cooperative agreements and chains, not to mention newspaper sites on the Internet that give the smallest newspaper instant worldwide circulation.

Fifteen reporters attending today's breakfast are affiliated with individual newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But 10 others work for various forms of news services or syndicates--Cox Newspapers, Donrey Media, Hearst Newspapers, Knight Ridder, Media General, Associated Features.

Technically speaking, even Dan Thomasson, whose objection ousted me from the room, files for a news service, not a newspaper.

Shortly before the governors arrive and breakfast begins, Budge Sperling approaches me in the corridor to which I have been exiled. Evidently wanting me to feel in good company, he offers that high-profile television journalist John Chancellor was upset that TV reporters were excluded from the breakfast. He says he has to be the bad guy in order to keep the breakfast what it is.

"Put yourself in my shoes," he says.

I ask him instead to put himself in mine. If he were 33 again, fairly new to Washington and excluded from an event because of his employer, would he do what I did: show up and argue he should be let in?

This time Budge doesn't hesitate. "Damn right," he says.