MEDIA: Christian Science Monitor Won't Let Wire Reporters In
Wednesday morning, EdSec Duncan appeared at the Christian Science Monitor Newsmakers breakfast (aka the Sperling Breakfast), a longtime Beltway event which apparently still forbids wire (and TV) reporters like Libby Quaid, who Tweeted plaintively about being kept out of the event. Blogger types like me are used to being excluded from all sorts of things, but for Quaid it must have been like being stiff-armed by Johnny Depp. Ironically, Politico.com and other online types were invited to the event. I bet they would have let her in if she'd showed up.
American Journalism Review
The Breakfast Club
By Larry Arnold
Godfrey "Budge" Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor is a
congenial octogenarian who welcomes the chance to mingle with a
new generation of Washington reporters. He does not, however,
look happy to meet me.
We are at the Capitol Hilton hotel, scene of today's 8 a.m.
"Sperling Breakfast," a Washington tradition wherein journalists
meet politicians over eggs and coffee. Sperling has hosted more
than 3,000 of these breakfasts, and some noteworthy developments
have taken place: In 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas
prepared for a presidential run by bringing his wife, Hillary,
to a breakfast to begin answering questions about their marital
I am here 15 minutes early. I am wearing a suit. I have my press
credentials. Having covered New Jersey politics for years, I am
familiar with one of the guests--New Jersey Gov. Christie
Whitman, who is here to talk tax cuts with fellow Republican
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
But I can't do anything about who employs me--the Associated
Press. At the Sperling Breakfast, that is a "flaw" that cannot
be overcome. For 33 years, Budge Sperling has organized
breakfasts where reporters can meet newsmakers. And for 33
years, he has not allowed the AP in.
Sperling questions why I am here and how I know about the
breakfast. He explains that AP is not invited. A gentleman, he
tries to convince me it's nothing personal. Eventually, he gives
in, with conditions: I sit at the end of the table, ask no
questions, and consider this a one-time exception. He invites me
to partake of the breakfast buffet.
Dan Thomasson, former Washington bureau chief of Scripps Howard
News Service, will have none of it. It's not right, he reminds
Budge, that "general agencies" have a seat at the table.
I ask what he means by general agencies.
"The AP," he says.
Thomasson offers no other examples, turning instead to history.
"This is not an AP function," he says. "They have never been
part of this. I won't come if AP's going to be here."
Sperling's tolerance dissipates. He asks me to leave.
The Sperling Breakfast is an institution in the best and worst
ways, a fixture of the Washington landscape still admired but no
longer questioned. It is venerable to the point of being
invulnerable, even among reporters who otherwise spend their
days asking "why?" Sperling tells me I'm the first reporter in
years to object to his invitation list.
When he writes columns about his breakfasts, Sperling cites one
rule: no electronic media, meaning television. What he doesn't
mention is his policy excluding wire services, which primarily
means the Associated Press, the world's largest newsgathering
The Sperling breakfast club does not like AP's immediacy.
Anything newsworthy said at 8 a.m. in front of an AP reporter
would be on the wire by noon, thus scooping the newspaper
reporters whose stories would not appear until the following
The main course at Sperling breakfasts is insight and
perspective, Sperling proudly points out. But breaking news,
which Sperling calls an "added dessert," sometimes gets served.
At breakfast in 1968, Robert Kennedy displayed his anguished
indecision over whether to run for president.
In 1973, a Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter told a breakfast
gathering that he was going to run for president three years
The news from a 1995 breakfast was that House Speaker Newt
Gingrich had been upset over being seated at the rear of Air
Force One on a trip to Israel, and that his pique had helped
create the budget standoff that shut down the federal
One headline-making breakfast involved Whitman. At a Sperling
gathering the morning after Whitman ousted Jim Florio as New
Jersey governor in 1993, her campaign strategist, Ed Rollins,
boasted that Republicans had successfully muffled the black vote
by using "street money" to buy the silence of African American
The story--which Rollins immediately retracted--did make the AP
wire that day, but only because a newspaper reporter called AP's
New Jersey control bureau asking if Whitman had reacted to
Rollins' claim. In other words, the reporter attended Sperling's
breakfast, which excluded AP. Later in the day, the reporter
utilized AP for what it is--a shared resource for all.
If anybody noticed the irony, it went unmentioned.
'In 1966, a stolid, slightly pompous Christian Science Monitor
reporter named Godfrey Sperling started organizing breakfasts
where he and some of his friends could meet with leading
politicians and government officials," Timothy Crouse wrote in
"The Boys on the Bus," his account of the 1972 presidential
campaign through the eyes of traveling political reporters. The
breakfasts were "on background," meaning guests were free to
talk without fear of being quoted by name. Newsmakers like
Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy would share in-depth
observations with political writers from heavyweight newspapers.
"By 1970," Crouse wrote, "Sperling's breakfast club began to go
to hell." Almost anybody could come, and the sessions were on
the record, so guests were more careful with their words.
However, in the early years when the list was more restrictive,
some of the excluded reporters formed a rival group, facetiously
named Political Writers for a Democratic Society. Its creators
were Jack Germond, then chief political writer for Gannett, and
Jules Witcover, then working for Newhouse newspapers.
Gannett and Newhouse, which didn't participate in the early
days, each have a reporter here today breakfasting with Whitman
and Huckabee. A lot can change over three decades, evidently.
But still AP is not allowed in.
New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Newhouse-owned Star-Ledger
of Newark, has a reporter here today. So does the state's No. 3
newspaper, the Record of Hackensack. Nos. 2 and 4 have eyes and
ears here in the form of a reporter for Gannett News Service. In
effect, the newspapers I would be here to represent are the 13
other dailies in New Jersey--papers such as the 25,000-
circulation Gloucester County Times and the 9,000-circulation
Bridgeton Evening News. And if Whitman or Huckabee served
breaking-news-a-la-mode, my story would be made available to
(As it turns out, no news is broken. Whitman and Huckabee are
available to reporters later in the day on Capitol Hill and
repeat much of what they say at breakfast. AP covers Sperling
breakfasts like any other closed event--by checking with the
speakers and those in attendance to learn what happened.)
Sperling may not want to admit it, but today's attendance list
reflects how archaic his AP exclusion has become. Journalism has
changed: where once there were newspapers and "The Wire," now
there is a crowded middle ground of syndicates, news services,
cooperative agreements and chains, not to mention newspaper
sites on the Internet that give the smallest newspaper instant
Fifteen reporters attending today's breakfast are affiliated
with individual newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal and the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But 10 others work for various forms
of news services or syndicates--Cox Newspapers, Donrey Media,
Hearst Newspapers, Knight Ridder, Media General, Associated
Technically speaking, even Dan Thomasson, whose objection ousted
me from the room, files for a news service, not a newspaper.
Shortly before the governors arrive and breakfast begins, Budge
Sperling approaches me in the corridor to which I have been
exiled. Evidently wanting me to feel in good company, he offers
that high-profile television journalist John Chancellor was
upset that TV reporters were excluded from the breakfast. He
says he has to be the bad guy in order to keep the breakfast
what it is.
"Put yourself in my shoes," he says.
I ask him instead to put himself in mine. If he were 33 again,
fairly new to Washington and excluded from an event because of
his employer, would he do what I did: show up and argue he
should be let in?
This time Budge doesn't hesitate. "Damn right," he says.