WASHINGTON — There was an old newspaperman’s axiom: Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel. These days, I suppose, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of a television or internet impresario.
But there was a time before the era of electronic journalism when the printed word carried great weight, along with that of its scribblers and editors who wore green eyeshades and ruled the roost. Names such as H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun and Scotty Reston of The New York Times were read with great admiration and influence in their hometowns, and the words of such icons were later spread through syndication across the country and even abroad.
Lesser reporters and opinion writers had celebrity stature in their home bases, and on the campaign trail they had broad access to the featured candidates and their skilled if less known political advisers and strategists.
For many years, there were relatively few such reporters and commentators fortunate to have well-heeled employers who dispatched them across the land as working companions on campaign trains and later airplanes.
The arrangement was mutually beneficial. The candidates got their pitches across firsthand, and the traveling reporters had up-close and personal access to would-be presidents. There always was the risk that the newsmen would be sold bills of goods in the process, but the better ones could and did guard against it, in the service of their readers.
However, with the mushrooming of electronic journalism — radio, television and the internet — the old cozy fraternity of traveling writers eventually swelled to an army of political reporters, not only from the networks but also from scores of rich local TV outlets.
Many were informed on local political matters but not so much on national affairs that were the bread and butter of presidential campaigns. Some made up for the lack with winning good looks and styles avidly sought and employed in television land.
Inevitably, the access afforded print reporters was often diminished, and campaign strategists and PR men and women were hired as surrogate sources to the press, instead of writers being able to get the story directly from the horses’ mouths.
The losers were not only the journalistic working stiffs but also readers of the newspapers back home who were left to sort out wheat from chaff from the collective news product offered by the intrusive campaign staffers.
All this is not to say that television’s political reporters lacked some of the best in journalism, notably fellow travelers like John Chancellor of NBC News and Roger Mudd and Dan Rather of CBS News, among others.
But the much broader reach of electronic journalism compared to that of the printed word, and the inevitable power of broadcast chatter, has unquestionably altered the landscape of newspaper journalism.
Still, plenty of old printheads continue to deliver quality fact and wisdom, such as Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic and Susan Page of USA Today, among others.
Fortunately, some of the better evening television news shows also offer informed commentary by such print reporters from the campaign trail and in their studios. They join knowledgeable staff television semi-celebrities, for the education and edification of their viewers.
Some newspaper owners with long histories of buying ink by the barrel have also segued into electronic journalism, in quest of broader and more profitable revenue and influence, while clinging to the old tradition of offering “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Yet for sheer fun and congeniality on the trail for what used to be called ink-stained wretches, there’s nothing like the back of a campaign bus, train or plane after a long day and night of chasing presidential hopefuls as they seek the privilege of national leadership, and then writing about that formidable quest.