A Gadfly's Fight for Credentials
By Linda Fibich
Linda Fibich is a former Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service and a former assistant managing editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune.
Ben A. Franklin didn't expect to fight a two-and-a-half-year battle for congressional press credentials when he applied in March 1993. After all, he'd been a reporter in Washington for nearly 40 years, 30 for the New York Times. Accreditation seemed to be a matter of professional courtesy.
"Effective April 1, I am to become editor/
reporter of The Washington Spectator," Franklin, 68, wrote to the journalists' committee that considers applications. He described the Spectator as "a biweekly newsletter published since 1974 by the Public Concern Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit, nongovernment, nonindustry, non-lobbying association." He continued, "The newsletter is supported entirely by subscriptions. Under those specifications, the Spectator seems to meet..requirements for accreditation."
Four months later, Franklin's application was denied by the Executive Committee of Correspondents of the House and Senate Periodical Galleries. The chief sticking point was that the foundation occasionally made research grants and sponsored symposia.
Richard S. Dunham, the Business Week writer who chairs the periodical correspondents' committee, says Franklin's quest raises "a very interesting and difficult question" over the combination of "a legitimate, respected reporter" with an organization that could be construed as having a political purpose.
Franklin isn't entirely unsympathetic, observing that the committee certainly must "resist giving credentials" to organizations that publish newsletters but that "have clear political agendas...and do lobbying."
Franklin argues that the Public Concern Foundation's philanthropy has been limited to a handful of grants, to the likes of New York's Museum of Modern Art and a literary group that brought Vietnamese writers to the U.S. He has a written agreement guaranteeing his editorial independence in what or how he writes for his four-page publication.
When he retired from the Times in 1990 as a result of strained relations with then-Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, Franklin went to work for a newsletter covering nuclear power. In 1993 he retired again but soon was recruited back into journalism by the publishers of the small, feisty newsletter of opinion in the tradition of I.F. Stone's Weekly.
There had been only one prior editor of The Washington Spectator: Tristram Coffin, now in his 80s, whose tenure began in the mid-1960s. At that time the Spectator was called "Washington Watch," and began as a newsletter founded by a group of businessmen opposed to the Vietnam War. It survived into the 1970s with the help of the late Ralph Shikes, a publisher of medical newsletters who started the Public Concern Foundation. A membership fee of $10 per year brings 22 issues of the Spectator annually.
The Spectator is among a growing number of political newsletters. Paul Swift, managing editor of the Newsletter on Newsletters in Rhinebeck, New York, says his firm's most recent directory lists 240 newsletters in its government and politics category, up from 143 in 1986.
Franklin devotes the Spectator to what he feels are "neglected stories." For example, he reported on questionable campaign finance practices uncovered during the Senate's investigation of Sen. Bob Packwood that were overshadowed by sexual harassment allegations. The 62,000-circulation newsletter's tone is "liberal- leaning, not radical," Franklin says; his goal is "to raise a little hell."
After his initial rejection, Franklin again sought accreditation in 1994. He persuaded his board to change language in the foundation's bylaws that might cause problems. Dunham says the committee will act on the appeal this month.
In September, Hamilton Fish III, the Public Concern Foundation's president, assured the House Periodical Press Gallery that publishing the Spectator was the foundation's only activity. "I hope you will grant Ben Franklin his credentials, for (speaking as his proud associate) I regard his crusty voice as a valuable addition to the otherwise homogenized coverage of national affairs emanating from Washington," Fish wrote. "I would add that he is far less accountable to overt agendas than virtually all of his colleagues in the mainstream media – and especially the television reporters – who must not offend the sensibilities of their corporate parents." ###