By Charles Kaiser with Lucy Howard in Washington and bureau reports
From Newsweek, April 19, 1982
For the two years that New York City perched on the edge of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, each day began the same way for every New York Times reporter covering the story--with a telephone call from Felix G. Rohatyn. The articulate investment banker from Lazard Freres & Co. was Gov. Hugh L. Carey's principal adviser in the crisis, and Rohatyn realized right from the start that he would have to control the coverage of the controversy if he was going to determine its outcome. He also understood exactly how to do that. The first half of his daily telephone call would always be on the record -almost invariably providing enough fresh information and quotable quotes to put Rohatyn and the reporter on the front page of the next day's Times. The second half would be off the record--so the reporter would know exactly what was most important about the story, and Rohatyn would never be quoted out of context. It was a masterly performance.
Genuine Newsmakers: Rohatyn is a media handler--a man with exceptional talents who also has a special appreciation of how the press works. There are dozens of others like him across the country, prominent people who revel in dealing directly with reporters, instead of insulating themselves behind a wall of press agents. They are a diverse group. Some, like Democratic Party power broker Robert S. Strauss, Chicago civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson and White House national-security adviser William P. Clark, are basically politicians. Others, like theatrical impresario Joseph Papp and New York City Opera general director Beverly Sills, inhabit the world of the arts. A few, like Rohatyn, come from Wall Street. All are genuine newsmakers. But as one leading New York editor puts it: "There's a very thin line between manipulating the public sensibility and simply doing something and being the magnet."
Within this group, Rohatyn is the smoothest; Papp, the frankest; Clark, the subtlest; Jackson, the most aggressive; Sills, the best liked, and Strauss, the most manipulative. While they all have dramatically different styles and personalities, each of them conveys the crucial impression that he enjoys the company of reporters. ("I like talking to them," says Rohatyn.) They also share a trait that is probably the single most important prerequisite for good relations with the press: supreme self-confidence. "The press has an animal instinct that smells fear," says Strauss. Thus, he reasons, when it comes to press relations, "you do better if you do it yourself."
Media handlers tend to be extremely well informed--or, at the very least, great gossips. They always return a reporter's telephone calls, they commit deadlines to memory and they never forget that they can't speak the same way on television as they would if they were being quoted in print. "If you had a camera with you I'd be talking differently," Jesse Jackson told NEWSWEEK's Lea Donosky. "There are things you might say on TV with a smile which in print seem offensive and look harsh," says Rohatyn. Strauss, for one, is such a master of mixed media that he was asked by ABC News to play the part of the "guest" in the dress rehearsal of the network's new Sunday interview program, "This Week with David Brinkley." "I don't prepare," boasts Strauss, "because you get overprepared."
'Tepid Bath': As well as being technically sophisticated, media handlers are also invariably quotable. Rohatyn in particular is a master of the kind of quasi-apocalyptic phrasing that reporters adore. For example, just when he was starting to despair of his ability to convince people that New York City really would suffer permanent damage if it went bankrupt, he came up with a simile that captured the public's imagination: "Bankruptcy is like someone stepping into a tepid bath and slashing his wrists--you might not feel yourself dying, but that's what would happen." Sometimes, Rohatyn says, "it's really important to take an abstract concept and bring it to the realm of reality with imagery. In a different way 1 think that's why Doonesbury is so effective." Beverly Sills is another kind of communicator, but an equally effective one. "If I call her up and ask her a question, she will talk for 45 minutes without being asked another question," says New York Times music critic Donal Henahan, "She never has any problem about what she means. She never fumbles for explanations."
With such well-honed skills, it is hardly surprising that media handlers generally attract an overwhelmingly favorable press. But to solidify their relationships, with reporters, they often go one step further--they cultivate an "atmosphere of intimacy" that one Washington correspondent describes as the ultimate form of flattery. To achieve such intimacy, each of them has his own idiosyncratic technique. Rohatyn will often go off the record to convey the impression that even his deepest secrets are available to the very discreet. Sills and Papp take the opposite tack--they put practically everything on the record, relying on their interviewer to protect them. "Don't abuse our relationship," Papp told a reporter he had met for the first time an hour earlier.
If Papp has known a reporter longer, there will be other intimations of affection. Says one longtime Papp observer: "If you talk to Joe, the characteristic experience is the most sophisticated and charming smile--as if to insinuate, "You and I really understand what's at the heart of this event'."
Reporters like to be entertained as much as anybody else, and media handlers like Papp and Sills understand the value of putting on a performance for them. "There's no one in New York as unbuttoned as Joe Papp," says one veteran theater critic. "He invites you into his midst." Sills does the same. Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer was delighted when the former diva let him follow her around for a whole day. "She didn't bar me from anything," he says. She also knows how to disarm critics with honesty. Dyer remembered seeing Sills sing Tosca--a very demanding role--in a music tent outside Cleveland. "I once asked her, was it true that she sang eight of those in seven days? And she said, "Honey, why do you think I'm finished at 50?"
Strauss's approach is more unorthodox but equally effective: one of his favorite too: is abuse. When Albert R. Hunt of the Wal Street Journal was preparing a profile of him, Strauss insisted that Hunt spend the night at his home in Dallas. At five minute to 6 the next morning, Strauss burst into the reporter's room with a breakfast tray. As he placed the food on Hunt's bed, he shouted to his wife: "Helen, get a picture. I know we can buy this sumbitch cheap!"
During the same trip, Hunt and Strauss made a $20 bet on a football game. Hunt won the bet, but Strauss didn't see him again until the reporter's profile--which turned out to be favorable -appeared in print. When Hunt ran into Strauss that day, he was surrounded by a group of reporters. With a dramatic flourish, the Texan pulled out a $20 bill. As he thrust it into Hunt's pocket, he announced for all to hear: "That was one hell of a piece this morning." "Nobody else could get away with it," says Hunt. "But it's funny when he does it."
Laid Back: Coming on strong is hardly the only way to win over the press; in fact, unless practiced by a master, it can easily backfire. William Clark's first fourteen months in the Reagan Administration are proof that what one reporter calls a "calculatingly laid back" approach to the press can be just as successful as Strauss's goodnatured bullying. A former California Supreme Court Justice who was named Deputy Secretary of State early last year, Clark became the object of nearly universal derision after his first appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During four hours of testimony, he failed to identify the prime ministers of South Africa and Zimbabwe, professed total ignorance of the divisions within Britain's Labor Party and said his understanding of detente came from reading NEWSWEEK and Time.
REAGAN CHOOSES NITWIT AS MINISTER, shouted a headline in one Amsterdam newspaper, and American diplomatic correspondents agreed. Only longtime Reagan-watcher Lou Cannon hinted at the turnaround to come. Writing in The Washington Post just after Reagan's Inauguration, Cannon pointed out that "Wherever he has gone, Clark has been controversial at first but has wound up making friends in unexpected quarters. One reason is his sense of humor, which surfaced recently when he said that his foreign-policy experience had been limited to "72 hours in Santiago'."
Unlike such extroverts as Rohatyn, Jackson or Papp, Clark rarely initiates a call to a reporter; nonetheless he is anonymously accessible. "Early on, you could pick up the phone and . . . ask for Judge Clark, and half the time he'd come on the phone," says one reporter. "That's unheard of at that high a level in the State Department." Agrees another State Department veteran: "He made himself available to serious reporters covering foreign affairs as often as he could. He didn't try to pretend he knew anything more than he did, but what he did talk about--always on background--was honest." Good relations with his subordinates also burnished his reputation. "He's made a lot of friends there," says one regular at State. "That's part of the secret to good press relations: anecdotes from the bureaucracy have made him look good."
The result of all this was what one diplomatic correspondent in Washington calls the greatest public-relations turnaround he has witnessed in twenty years. "It was a marvelous job," says the correspondent. "For a guy who started so poorly, he certainly has gotten a remarkably good press." When Clark moved to the White House last January to replace Richard V. Allen as the President's national-security adviser, columnist Joseph Kraft noted that the appointment had been greeted with "cheers fit for a Super Bowl champion." "An effective manager, willing learner and invaluable peacemaker," enthused Hedrick Smith of the Times. "An upgrading of the national security assistant's job," declared the Wall Street Journal.
Public Image: Clark's expertise in press relations had been carefully cultivated over the years. He had extensive practice dealing with reporters long before his arrival in Washington. As Ronald Reagan's chief of staff during his first term as governor of California, Clark spent "a lot of time talking to the political guys from the Sacramento bureaus of the big papers in California," recalls a veteran San Francisco political reporter. "He would also be talking to the San Francisco bureau people for The New York Times, and for Time and for NEWSWEEK. Being a Supreme Court Justice in a big state like California, it's a tricky thing to start taking calls from reporters, but Clark would always take them." Equally important, he knew how to handle himself. "He was guarded about what he'd talk about," the reporter says. "He didn't hesitate to say to you, "Well, I better not talk about that -but he managed to convey to you the appearance that he wanted to help. That of course is the fundamental of his successful public image in Washington."
Most successful media handlers have had long experience with the press. Joe Papp, in fact, once published a neighborhood newspaper of his own in Brooklyn -when he was 12. "I had this guy who had a typewriter -an older guy who used to type it up for me," the producer says. "One page, and we'd make about 30 carbon copies. We'd give it away, I cut the word "Press' out of a headline in the Daily News and put it in my hat."
Papp has since made himself the living symbol of his New York Shakespeare Festival. That role first brought him to prominence in 1959 when he manipulated the press brilliantly in a successful battle against Robert Moses, the legendary New "York power broker who tried to banish Papp's free Shakespeare presentation from Central Park. In recent years, Papp has begun to worry about contracting the disease that he and others like him dread most: overexposure. "If I do too many things, I'm not as effective," he says, "I'm very select now in what I do." Still, Papp couldn't resist organizing a belated effort by prominent New York actors to prevent the demolition of two historic Times Square theaters that fell under the wrecker's ball last month to make way for a new hotel. He negotiated his own arrest--for trespassing--in advance with police, and when the paddy wagons arrived he made sure that the most famous of the protesters were all carted off together--to make it easier for the photographers to get good pictures.
Friends: Felix Rohatyn's initiation into the mysteries of the press was a bit loftier, though no less effective. "Most of the reporters assigned to the fiscal story in New York were political reporters," he recalls. "It created an atmosphere where I could teach them about finance, and they could teach me about politics. In the summer of 1975 I'd come back to the office and there'd be eight messages from eight different Times reporters. Finally I said to one of them, 'Why don't you all move in together so I could get you all on one phone call?'" Many of the friends Rohatyn made in the press then remain close to him today. He is also friendly with newspaper executives like Michael J. O'Neill, editor of the New York Daily News and Katharine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company.
What has Rohatyn learned from his wellplaced friends? "I have a picture of what the press can do and cannot do," he says. "And I guess I've learned that if you ever wanted to kill a story, the last thing you would do would be to go to Kay Graham or [New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs] Punch Sulzberger." Rohatyn is right, of course: newspaper owners in general--and Graham and Sulzberger in particular--bristle at any direct attempt to interfere with their reporters' activities. Yet despite Rohatyn's sophistication in these matters, he seriously considered calling Mrs. Graham to complain after NEWSWEEK twice postponed publication of a cover story it had prepared about him last year. In the end, he didn't--after a friend pointed out that a call to the magazine's owner would be the worst possible course of action. Eventually, the Rohatyn cover story did run (NEWSWEEK, May 4, 1981).
When a source wants to get a story spiked, the best approach is to call the reporter who is writing it. Rohatyn is not known for trying to kill stories, but other media handlers are. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman John C. White, for example, once managed to "edit" a New York Times story about a lobbyist for the Libyan Government who had been accused of trying to bribe Carter Administration officials. When White learned that a reporter he knew at the Times was about to publish a story saying he had given conflicting accounts of meetings he had had with the lobbyist, he simply called up the reporter at the paper and persuaded him that it was all "just a misunderstanding." The tactic worked: the reporter agreed to delete the damaging references to White from the piece.
Indispensable Components: Normally, a source's friendship with a reporter has a far more subtle effect on coverage. For one thing, few self-respecting journalists would ever kill a story they know to be true -no matter how friendly they are with the subject. As a result, even great media handlers like Rohatyn sometimes get bad publicity. (Rohatyn refuses to specify his worst experience with the press. "It would give the reporters who did it the pleasure of knowing they got to me," he says.) Still, a reporter will naturally try to treat his favorite sources gingerly, especially when the sources are so good that the reporter comes to think of them as indispensable components of his professional life.
In general, a public figure's personality is far more important than his politics in determining his relationship to the press. For example, most White House reporters are probably politically closer to Jimmy Carter than to Ronald Reagan. But Carter's manner rubbed reporters the wrong way, and so his relations with the press were nothing short of disastrous. These days, though many reporters have serious reservations about President Reagan's policies, he continues to enjoy a relatively cordial relationship with most of the regular White House correspondents because they still like him personally.
Seduction: The Wall Street Journal's Hunt provides another perspective on the impact of a media handler's personality on the press. "I don't think many of us totally trust Bob Strauss," Hunt says. "He's completely self-serving. But he's an old pro, and he does have good instincts. He'll tell you won't when it's not in his interest. But he so overwhelms you with colorful stuff that sometimes the other stuff gets lost." The best reporters are always on guard against intellectual seduction by sources who are also their friends. But press critic and former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III believes that men like Strauss may have discovered the best way to penetrate a reporter's defenses. "The press is probably more easily conned than any other institution--so long as the con tells them, "I'm conning you'," says Carter. "Bob is a master of that. He engages with reporters as though they were what they want to think of themselves as--real participants in the world they cover. To discover the secret of [people like Strauss] is to look deep into the heart of journalism--and not to like everything you see."
Return to charleskaiser.com