Four Decades with the WH Press Corps

July 18th, 2010 at 11:23 am | 1 Comment |

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Most every freshman journalist struggles with ‘the call’.

You’re on deadline, help the clock is ticking, stuff and the only way to finish your piece is to phone and (at least in your mind) harass some giant of American political life. You’ve been reading about this person for ages, you’ve looked up to their work, and now… now you have to hassle them.

There are exceptions. One journalist whom I imagine never suffered from this experience was Les Kinsolving, now 83 and still a member of the White House Press Corps. His voluminous life has been given the biographical treatment by an author whom one can only presume has been afforded the deepest level of access – his daughter.

Kathleen Kinsolving’s Gadfly: The Life and Times of Les Kinsolving traces the elder Kinsolving’s life from irreverent priest to irreverent reporter to irreverent White House correspondent.

Kinsolving was, from the very outset, a happy contrarian. As an Episcopalian priest, he preached that the concept of hell was antithetical to the idea of a merciful God; he questioned the truth of the virgin birth; in 1965 he joined Martin Luther King, Jr. on his march from Selma to Montgomery; and he supported a woman’s right to choose and the abolition of the death penalty.

While it was this contrarian disposition that led Kinsolving to be suspended from the Episcopalian priesthood in 1978, it was this same disposition that made him such an effective reporter. Les Kinsolving considered no topic too sacrosanct to broach, no subject too holy to question.

Perhaps the story in this book that speaks most to Kinsolving’s personality is when he decides to investigate Children, Inc. after seeing an advertisement about a child living in impoverishment. The caption read that ‘Tina’ had never had a Teddy bear. Les scheduled an interview with the president of the organization to ask if Tina had gotten her teddy bear yet. The interview went thusly:

Mrs. Clarke: I’m sure she has a Teddy bear now. We’ve used that ad for several years.

Kinsolving: If Tina now has a Teddy bear, why have you been advertising for years that she “never had a Teddy bear”?

Mrs. Clarke: Maybe she doesn’t have a Teddy bear.

Kinsolving: Mrs. Clarke, you have just told me – and I quote: “I’m sure she has a Teddy bear now.”

Mrs. Clarke: …If we changed these ads every time the child was helped, the costs would be astronomical!

Kinsolving: Is truth in advertising an obligation only when it’s inexpensive?

Not satisfied with annoying the presidents of charities, Kinsolving found a way to annoy the President of the United States. He needled President Ronald Reagan about his church attendance, and, unable to get a word in during White House press conferences, would rise and shout a question anytime the President pointed at a reporter. This prompted a flash of Reagan’s legendary wit: “My finger must be crooked,” quipped the President to his press secretary.

Kinsolving’s reporting career led him to an investigation of the Peoples Temple, a California-based cult that gained popularity and influence in the 1970s. After sections of a particularly damning series ran in the San Francisco Examiner, members of the Peoples Temple picketed the Examiner’s offices and Temple leader Jim Jones threatened a lawsuit.

Already harangued by other lawsuits, the paper put a halt to the series, instead assigning a reporter to interview cult leader Jim Jones. The Examiner’s timidity would be proved shameful in 1978, when Jones ordered his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide”. 918 Americans would die in the cult’s Guyanese commune, the largest number of U.S. civilian deaths in one incident until 9/11.

Alongside the instances where Kinsolving has been proved right, the book also presents the shameful episodes. Although the author is the subject’s daughter, the younger Kinsolving pulls no punches. The book winds through her father’s support for the South African regime during apartheid; his homophobia and later insistence that AIDS could be contracted by sitting in a chair recently vacated by someone who has it; and his sympathies for the more recent ‘birther’ movement.

Of course, Kinsolving was no saint (as I’m sure he’d admit). As a reporter, Kinsolving flirted with the line between insight and irritant. But he showed – still shows – the assiduousness required to be an effective reporter. In fact, his style speaks to the ongoing struggle between two camps in the contemporary stable of right-of-center journalists.

On one side, incisive writers like Conor Friedersdorf, Julian Sanchez, Dave Weigel, Matthew Continetti, and James Poulos take the traditional route: hard questions and thoughtful commentary. On the other, reality-TV journalists like Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe use costumes, cash prizes and hidden cameras to tell their story, sometimes reasoning that misleading the subject of an investigation is a legitimate step in a the larger journey for the truth.

Kinsolving’s career demonstrates that it is possible to get scoops simply with piercing questions, logic and hard work. Guts and persistence render James O’Keefe-style journalism unnecessary– while O’Keefe might have snuck into the Peoples’ Temple with tiny cameras, Kinsolving just showed up and sat in the pews.

Indeed, Kinsolving understood what O’Keefe has not yet acknowledged: if a journalist is willing to mislead a source to secure a story, how can the reader trust that they are not also being misled? Lester Kinsolving had the guts to be brazen but also the guts too to be honest, and, despite his flaws, his career story presents lessons for any aspiring reporters.

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