Life in the Bureaus: A Legacy of Mediocrity

Best and worst Washington correspondents

Washington bureaus of Texas newspapers have established a tradition of incompetence that goes back for decades. Take the case of former Fort Worth Star-Telegram bureau chief John Mort, who covered a speech by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and missed one little detail.

Mort, who faithfully rewrote a White House press release about the speech and filed it with his newspaper before the speech was delivered, did not bother to watch the President give the address. He therefore wrote what was undoubtedly the only news story in America which “covered” the speech but failed to note that the President had announced that he would not run for re-election.

Mort’s failure to get the biggest story of the year points to the plight of mid-sized newspapers in Washington: Reporters are spoon-fed information by the public relations staffs of every office from the White House to the House of Representatives. It is easy for a Washington bureau reporter, separated from his editors by thousands of miles, to sit back and merely process news releases for publication in his newspaper.

This tradition of mediocrity makes the few good Dallas-Fort Worth reporters in Washington stand out.

●Bill Choyke, 28, of the Star-Telegram, is the best reporter in Washington working for any Dallas-Fort Worth paper. In a D Magazine survey of Washington reporters for Texas newspapers, Choyke was consistently rated by his peers as the best in the bureaus. When Braniff Airways was trying to win approval of a London route. Choyke consistently beat both Dallas papers – as well as the Washington Post – with his coverage. He came to the Star-Telegram from the Capitol Hill News Service, a Ralph Nader-backed organization in which Choyke learned aggressive Washington-style journalism.

● The Dallas Times Herald has the best Washington bureau of any Dallas area newspaper, perhaps of any newspaper in Texas. The Herald bureau has three young, aggressive reporters who have no interst in being processors of news releases. “We are more than happy to leave the task of enshrining press releases to the people over at the Morning News/’ says Herald bureau chief Roy Bodie, 29, who was a six-year veteran of the Arkansas Democrat when he joined the Herald last fall.

With Bodie, Bob Dudney, and Paul West, the Herald has three young spear-carriers who. unlike most of their peers at Texas newspapers, are out to break stories of national importance. Bodie has the best connections of any reporter in the three bureaus. “He drinks with Jody Powell sometimes,” says one of Bodie’s competitors, “and that doesn’t hurt him at all.” West is the best writer in the bureaus.

●Larry Neal, 33, bureau chief for the Star-Telegram, is the worst reporter in the three bureaus. Neal established himself at the Star-Telegram as hardworking but mediocre: He landed the bureau chiefs job largely because he had more seniority than Choyke when the position became available about six months ago. Neal has been in Washington for only six months, but he has already established himself in the John Mort tradition. The Star-Telegram, which regularly prints the voting records of Fort Worth area Congressmen, went fora month with no voting records after Neal arrived. When editor Jack Tins-ley called his bureau to find out what had happened, he was told the bureau’s subscription to the Congressional Record had lapsed. “I’ve got an idea,” Tinsley said. “Why not check for yourself?”

●The worst bureau of the three is that of the Dallas Morning News, staffed by two reporters who are obviously burned out by an overdose of Washington politics and a third who does not have the political savvy to understand what she’s covering. Bureau chief John Geddie, a 16-year veteran of the Morning News, has been described by his peers as a good reporter who can’t seem to stay interested in what he is covering. The same is true of Carolyn Raeke, a 5-year veteran of the bureau. Raeke frequently lets her bias show, especially when writing about Rep. Jim Mattox, whom she obviously likes, and Rep. Dale Milford, whom she apparently dislikes. Runner-up for the worst reporter in Washington is Barbara Strong, whom Geddie hired as a secretary and converted into what News executive editor Tom Simmons calls a “journeyman reporter.” Congressional sources say Strong is notorious for allowing a politician to attack an opponent in the pages of the News, without bothering to check both sides of the story.

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