Donald Ritchie: The National Press Club, at 100





[Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. This blog summarizes his talk at the National Press Club on its 100th anniversary. Video of that talk is online here.]

The National Press Club is celebrating its centennial, raising a question about why journalistic competitors feel compelled to band together. Founded in 1908, the club had many short-lived predecessors. The Washington Correspondents’ Club, for instance, held several dinners designed to reduce tensions between reporters and their political sources during the difficult days of Reconstruction. Such nineteenth-century press clubs failed because they let their members run up a tab at the bar (the National Press Club has never extended credit), and because they were either press clubs, founded by reporters for Washington, D.C., papers that excluded national correspondents, or correspondents’ clubs that barred the local press, indicating the animosity between them. The genius of the National Press Club was that it combined reporters for both the local and the national press.

But only men. The club left women and minorities outside the parameters of mainstream journalism. Not until 1955 did it hold a vote of its entire membership to admit Louis Lautier, a reporter for the National Negro Publishers Association. Radio news broadcasters were also treated as second-class citizens at first, being permitted to join the club only as non-voting members. Women reporters founded the Women’s National Press Club, but the separation prevented them from covering the National Press Club’s regular “newsmaker” luncheons.

In 1956, the men offered a compromise by inviting women to attend the luncheons, so long as they sat in the balcony and left as soon as the lunch was over. While the men dined below, the women shared the balcony with television cameras, hot lights, and coils of electrical wiring. Women reporters appealed to the famous guest speakers not to participate unless they could dine below with the men. Among the few to comply was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, eager to publicize an American injustice. One who failed to offer solidarity was Martin Luther King, Jr., desperate to attract national press attention to the March on Washington. Dr. King spoke to an audience segregated by gender rather than race. Economic pressures on the club, whose membership declined during the 1960s, finally persuaded the men to admit women as members in 1971. Fittingly, the club’s centennial-year president is Sylvia Smith of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

Regardless of race, gender, or media, Washington correspondents have historically been caught in a creative tension between the scoop and the pack–between professional rivalries and forces that pull the competitors together. They spend much time together outside the same closed doors, riding the same campaign trains, planes, and vans, being handed the same press releases, attending the same press conferences, cultivating the same high-placed sources. This pack journalism is counteracted by each reporter’s dream of the scoop, beating everyone else to the big story that makes a difference.

Somewhere between the scoop and the pack, the club has provided a welcome respite for the working press. Formed for reasons of camaraderie, the club has helped to shape the press corps and to define legitimate reporting. Unique among world governments, the U.S. allows reporters themselves to determine who deserves a press pass. Both the press galleries and the press clubs have guarded this prerogative jealously, and have labored diligently to decide whom to admit. Sometimes they have been too narrow in their definition and too slow to diversify. But ultimately the galleries and clubs have expanded to accommodate a more diffuse news business, one that continues to evolve with each startling technological breakthrough. The Internet will not be the last. A central institution in this transformation, the National Press Club has provided a common ground for newsmakers and news reporters. It would be hard to image the Washington press corps operating without it.

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