It’s after work on Wednesday and the guests are trickling in to the Beacon Bar & Grill near Dupont Circle. Tim Shipman, for two and a half years the Washington correspondent for the United Kingdom’s Sunday Telegraph, is leaving Washington. And Shipman is buying the drinks.
“You sure you don’t want another one on the house?” asks a bartender, handing Shipman a receipt. “Another drink? Another shot?”
Shipman takes the receipt. “So it’s a big bill, then.”
Political consultants come by to talk to Shipman, along with reporters from other foreign papers, fellow British expatriates and a newly minted spokesman for the Heritage Foundation. Shipman has played a unique role in the life of the city. As one of three Washington-based reporters for the Telegraph — there are four others on the paper’s American staff, based in New York and Los Angeles — Shipman pounded out stories and blog posts saturated with rumors and intrigue from the capital and from the campaign trail. (The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph, which vary in their coverage, are different editions of the newspaper founded in 1855.)
“All British reporters bring to their reporting an impish desire to entertain as well as inform,” said Shipman, a graduate of Cambridge University who’s leaving Washington to cover Westminster politics for the Daily Mail. “Britain is very intensive newspaper market and you don’t get anywhere unless you tell your readers something extra. We take the view that politics ought to be fun.”
That isn’t the view of Democrats who have been burned by the Telegraph’s stories. “They use anonymous sources to a degree that makes you wonder if they actually have them,” said Bob Shrum, the retired political consultant who managed the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “I would have murdered someone from the Kerry campaign if they talked to the Daily Telegraph.”
Democrats have a long list of grievances with the Telegraph, the most recent examples all traceable to Shipman. In the past year he reported that close allies of Gore were pushing him into the Democratic race to end the Clinton-Obama standoff, that former President Bill Clinton warned that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama would have to “kiss his ass” to get an endorsement and that a source close to the new president worried that the insultingly cheap gift of DVDs he gave to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown meant that Obama was “overwhelmed” by his job. Democrats who worked with those campaigns told TWI that these stories were, respectively, “a total lie,” “just not true,” and “something nobody thinks is true.”
Shipman is amused by the criticism. “I never report what I’m not told,” he said. “If I have one source who tells me this, I will write that in.” After the campaigns or furors are over, he said, the stories hang together, “except, obviously, for the bit about Gore.” Since the campaign ended and Clinton staffers dropped their codes of silence, his story is only one of many stories of the former president lighting into the current one.
Since the DVDs-for-Brown story, he can recount conversations with high-level Obama staffers who admit that the White House made a distracted mistake. “The calls I get from other reporters are about 50/50,” he said. “Half of them tell me off, and half of them ask me how I got the story.”
All of this matters to American politicians because the Telegraph, in the age of the Drudge Report, is able to put stories that American media would not run into the political news cycle. The DVDs-for-Brown story was a classic Telegraph success — from Shipman’s conversations, into the paper, onto Drudge, into the cable news and talk radio cycles and into the questions that American reporters posed to the White House.
“Whether or not Obama was ‘overwhelmed’ by his job was debated on Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly,” said Shipman. “Glenn Beck advised his audience to send letters of apology to the British Embassy and I’m told that they got hundreds. That story got into the media bloodstream.”
Telegraph stories get into the bloodstream largely through links from Drudge, from RealClearPolitics and from other sites that hunt for political scoops. The “overwhelmed Obama” story, which relied on anonymous sources, was a sensation; two follow-up blog posts about the DVDs-for-Brown affair were promoted by Drudge as “PAPER: Obama ‘just plain rude’ to UK” and “‘Lady Macbeth’ Michelle behind snub to UK?”
“The British reporters are the best,” said Andrew Breitbart, a former part-time editor of the Drudge Report who is now editor of Breitbart.com and its Big Hollywood opinion site. “They have such better attitudes than our guys. They’re less simpering. You read their stories and you want go out and drink beers with these guys. The Left just hates them because they tell good stories and the Left doesn’t want good stories if it means they’ll lose a couple of innings.”
Democrats have other, more particular reasons to bristle at the Telegraph. During President Clinton’s first term, the paper’s chief Washington correspondent was Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who chased down and reported all manner of rumors about the president, about his sex life, about who killed Vince Foster and about his financial dealings—excoriating the Washington media establishment for not getting there sooner. “Allegations of drug use, sexual shenanigans and misuse of state resources were there for the plucking during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign,” Evans-Pritchard wrote in 1995, mocking The Washington Post for trying to discredit his reporting.
To the Clinton White House it was clear that the Telegraph was part of—as it alleged in a 331-page report released right before Evans-Pritchard left Washington—“the Conspiracy Commerce Department.” If a story did not pass muster to appear in an American newspaper, it would be laundered to the Telegraph or to another British tabloid. If a story appeared in a British newspaper, that was enough to start reporters or pundits talking about it in Washington.
“A senior Hill staffer told me last week that there was no such thing as a ‘foreign press’ anymore,” said Toby Harnden, the U.S. editor of the Daily Telegraph. (Shipman, working for the Sunday Telegraph, dealt with different editors.) “He was right. The task of foreign correspondents in the U.S. used to be to write about this strange country far away for the natives back home. That just isn’t the case anymore. Our stuff gets read here.”
Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, watched the pipeline in action. “Drudge would link to one of these articles,” said Singer. “Drudge would put up a fancy splash banner headline. The American media would see it on Drudge and then chase it.” But in 2007 and 2008, Singer and the Clinton campaign succeeded in neutralizing some sensational Telegraph stories by putting out quick responses online. “The Internet allows you to burst the bubble.”
Eric Alterman, a liberal media critic who has written about the way conservative memes move through the news cycle, agrees with Singer. “In the olden days, these papers carried some authority because people had little idea what they were up to. But now that the prestige of the media has fallen so low, their capacity to do damage strikes me as part of another era.”
“They’re cheap dates,” said one former McCain campaign staffer. “If you give something to the British press you know it’ll make it into their story and then whether it gets around is a matter of whether other people want to take it seriously.” The staffer pointed to the example of a Sunday Times (U.K.) story that quoted McCain staffers, accurately, as saying that they’d talked about a pre-election “shotgun wedding” between Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston. The plan was scuttled, but the gossip was real, so it became a story that bounced all over the political media. “That was a lot of fun.”
It’s all part of how the Telegraph’s correspondents work. “British reporters see themselves as tradesmen who work the angles and occasionally hang out in the bars and dig up the facts by a wide variety of means, some of them occasionally unorthodox,” said Harnden. “American journalism has tended to see itself as more academic profession, on par with the law or medicine and as part of the Establishment.”
“We self-censor less than American reporters,” said Shipman. “It puts peoples’ backs up from time to time. People will say we’re putting out Republican talking points, which is complete bollocks. If anything, Republicans are reading what we write and picking up on it.”