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When President Clinton held a briefing last month on his D.C. economic-development package in the East Room of the White House, a mob of reporters was penned up in the back behind a rope. The cognoscenti were comfortably seatedD.C. business types, elected leaders, the control board, and of course, David Vise of the Washington Post. That is as it should beVise belongs among the players because he’s one of them.
Vise is one of the most enterprising reporters at a very important paper, andfrom a purely practical perspectivethe hardest working member of the control board. The fact that he was never chosen to serve doesn’t really distinguish him from the five unelected Brahmins he has been covering since they were just a twinkle in the eye of congressional overseers back in the spring of 1995.
Vise gets the nod as the critical sixth man because he is reliable, diligent, and versatile. He is the layer of tracks, the carrier of water, the launcher of balloons, the issuer of pink slips, and the spinner of events. Vise is a relentless journalist by all accounts, and so far inside this otherwise recondite arm of the feds that his stories seem to serve as planning documents. The board never makes an important move without first telegraphing it through the Newspaper of Record.
Vise’s unparalleled rapport with the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority began early, with a soothing profile piece when Andrew Brimmer was named chair in June 1995. The lede for the profile suggested, “Andrew F. Brimmer appreciates the value of keeping secrets, of working out messy public issues in private.” Fortunately for Vise, Brimmer’s penchant for stealth didn’t prevent him from allowing Vise to immediately insinuate himself into the innermost loop of the control board and proceed to pick off exclusive after exclusive like so much low-hanging fruit. Although his stories met the Post’s clinical standards for objectivity, the spin wasn’t hard to track: The control board had all the power and talent to do what the city’s elected officials had failed to do in 20 years of home rule, so why not get out of the way? Even sources at the control board will admit they have gotten a hell of a ride out of the Post: “It’s clear they want us to succeed,” says one.
It’s been a two-way street. The care and feeding of Vise is a high priority at the board. Last week, Washington Times reporter Vincent Morris was working on a story about the control board’s rejection of a hefty contract to ship D.C. inmates to private prisons. Morris reported late in the day, confident that he finally had something the Post didn’t. But someone on the control board tipped off Vise very late in the game, and after getting Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans on the phone at home at 11 p.m., Vise managed to match Morris’ story. Morris would not comment, but sources at the D.C. Council said that Vise got a heads up from someone at the control board.
Sometimes keeping Vise ahead of the game can get ugly. When it appeared that other reporters were going to break open the story about the school board putsch, Vise stepped inthe day after the school board elections. The Post ran a tasteless preview of Gen. Julius Becton’s brave new order in the spot where readers expected to see what their votes had counted for. Other than some vintage whines from the elected school board, there was little examination of the implications of the overthrow.
Vise has such a lock on the control board that other beat reporters have to hold hands with him in the byline to write stories on their own beats that have control board involvement. Vise frequently knows where the ax is falling long before its intendeds have a clue. Vise presaged the firing of school Superintendent Franklin Smith, Department of Human Services Director Vernon Hawkins, and Inspector General Angela Avant. He was calling the mayor’s office for reaction on the Booz-Allen police overview before Barry’s people even knew what was contained in the report. It’s a level of access that many in government covet, never mind competing reporters.
“I have maintained for some time that we should at least get documents from the control board the day after David Vise gets them,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, a former journalist herself.
Vise graciously declined to speak about this story, but city editor Keith Harriston did respond to questions about Vise’s ownership of the control board. “I think that David Vise is an excellent beat reporter, and I think if you look at the results, they speak for themselves,” says Harriston.
The Vulcan mind-meld between Brimmer and Vise should not be misconstrued as an institutional openness to the glories of the Fourth Estate. Evans was recently publicly upbraided by control board member Stephen Harlan for speaking to reporters after an executive-level meeting.
“It is not uncommon to be in meeting with them and have them say that everything said there should stay there. I have told them that I will not abide by that, but [I have] been very careful in what I did say. But the irony is that many times what takes place in those meetings appears in the press the very next day. And the leaks are not from the council side,” Evans observes.
The leaks usually spill out under Vise’s byline, but part of the reason Vise owns the control board is that it owns him back. In his two years of control board coverage, Vise has never put a serious hit on the board. He hasn’t written effectively about how the chairman’s imperiousnessBrimmer’s model for the board is the Federal Reservehas limited his ability to actually dig in and do the kind of work that will produce lasting change. There has never been a look-see into the Politburo-style unanimity on the control boardother than Harlan’s occasionally popping off, when do we ever hear anything about what anybody on that board thinks?
If Vise isn’t playing favorites, how is it the control board ends up with credit for everything and responsibility for nothing? At the end of the year, Brimmer was making low, threatening noises about whacking the budget if Barry didn’t, but after the mayor refused, Brimmer blinked, gave Barry another lecture, and sent him back to the woodshed to try again. And who is looking at the cronyism and sole-source contracts that are as much a part of the control board’s M.O. as Barry’s? Vise has occasionally referred to the board’s lack of progress, but no one at the control board lives in fear of tough questions coming from the Post.
By sticking with the stories handed to him by Brimmer and control board Executive Director John Hill, Vise has stayed within a narrow bandwidth of coverage, which is just the way the control freaks at the control board like it. Control board spokesperson Mark Goldstein denies that Vise duplicates any of his functions or receives special treatment.
“I don’t think the authority members or its staff treat any member of the media with favoritism. We try very hard to make sure that all members of the media hear about the issues simultaneously,” Goldstein said in a phone interview.
Spin about spin aside, WAMU-FM political analyst Mark Plotkin says the séance between the two institutions makes perfect sense:
“The people on the control board are aristocrats. They would be more at home at a Palm Beach disease ball than running for election. They serve on committees and don’t like to sully themselves with the electoral process. Of course the Post loves them. They are like recovering alcoholics. The Post endorsed Barry three times and they are embarrassed by that, and now they want to make up for it by supporting the work of the control board.”
While Vise’s coverage has been tendentious, it has put the Post far out in front in covering the only governmental institution in the District that has any real power. A few years ago, the Post could not have cared less about getting beaten by the Times on a metro story. Vise’s coverage gives the lie to the paper’s reputation for deep-seated disdain of its own backyard. He arrived on the beat from the Post’s business desk with some nice hardwarehe and Steve Coll won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for a series about the Securities and Exchange Commission. And his vitae proves him well qualified for his unofficial position on the control board: Vise has studied at the London School of Economics, and graduated magna cum laude from the Wharton School, where he also received his MBA. He worked for a time as an investment banker for Goldman, Sachs & Co. Given that kind of professional history, it’s not surprising that when Brimmer, a Harvard MBA, wants to chat up someone about the nuances of procurement reform, he can always punch up Vise on his speed dial.
The similarities between Vise and Brimmer amplify the overlapping interests of the institutions behind them. The Post and the control board believe Barry is the Antichrist, the root of all the District’s evils. That means that when Brimmer wants to mau mau Barry, he is sanctified on Page One. When Barry wants to push back, he gets a short ride below the fold in Metro.
City Administrator Michael Rogers, who frequently finds himself responding to a reporter who has more information than he does, says he’s gotten used to the short end of the stick.
“I think the linkage between the Post and the authority certainly poses a greater challenge in managing the city. The authority has a certain predisposition that they then telegraph through the words of the Post, and it makes it tough to break through. It seems a bit one-sided to me. I think you have to look to the press for balanced reporting, to take a critical view of all institutions, and when critical comments are deserved, they should be made. That hasn’t always been the case with the coverage of the control board,” Rogers says.
The control board depicted by the Post is a group of hard-working volunteers whose motives are beyond reproach. Which may be true, but as the wheels of government continue to pop off, you’d think some of the blame would come to rest on their desk. It never does. The honeymoon continues because in the sphere of public opinion the Post is a market maker, with an impact that renders countervailing opinions so much background noise, except in large segments of the black community, which regard the Post with tremendous suspicion.
“Institutionally, the Post is the big foot. They are the ones that Congress pays attention to, and once the Post says it, it is reality. You hear it everywhere,” observes Tom Sherwood of WRC-TV Channel 4.
“Certainly, there is more criticism of the control board than gets into the Post, but that may not all be of David’s doing. When you are on a beat at a big paper, it’s often the responsibility of other reporters to come in and be the bad cop, but they haven’t chosen to do that,” says Sherwood, who says he worked briefly with Vise at the Post and thinks he deserves every scoop that comes his way. Still, he believes the control board has had its way with the paper.
“It’s the ‘mean well’ school of reporting. Because the Post believes that the people on the control board mean well, they are not held to account like other areas of government,” says Sherwood.
It’s a game as old as ink. A few beat-sweeteners here, a couple of key leaks there, and pretty soon you have a marriage made in heaven. Evans doesn’t think there’s anything new about that:
“The control board likes to act like they are above politics, but you and I know that they are skillful politicians in their own right, and all they have done is put the spin on their story. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are all trying to get our message out, and I don’t think the control board should be faulted for doing a good job of it.”David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at email@example.com or call (202) 332-2100.