Commentary: D.C. datelines back in capital letters


NEW YORK -- Welcome back, Washington. It has been awhile.

MUntil the financial crisis and bailout pushed their way into the headlines in the fall, the nation's capital was anything but a treasured dateline. The real domestic stories were out on the campaign trail, in Iowa and New Hampshire; at the gasoline pumps, where prices reached nearly $5 a gallon; and even in a tiny town way up north called Wasilla, Alaska.

A year ago, as I sat in the office of a distinguished Washington journalist, we talked about how D.C. news somehow had taken a back seat to news from the rest of the world. Not much from Washington was getting on the air, neither from the White House during the last year or so of the Bush administration nor from anything Congress did.

I left his office thinking I might see tumbleweeds blowing down Pennsylvania Avenue. It felt that way all through the summer as the political news center traveled from state to state, primary to primary, to Denver for the Democratic National Convention and a few days later to St. Paul, Minn., for the Republican National Convention.

It took a historic election and an equally historic near-collapse of the financial system, but Washington is back.

"Washington is the center of the universe now," new NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd told me last month. "The story of 2009 will take place in Washington."

You're going to see a lot of Washington on TV during the next week, with the inauguration of Barack Obama taking center stage. Broadcast and cable networks are providing saturation coverage beginning a week from today, giving up most of their airtime for the pomp and circumstance, the parade and, later that night, the many parties. CBS and NBC are providing hourlong specials in primetime recapping Inauguration Day's events; ABC is devoting the entire night to a special of its own and two hours of live coverage of one of the inaugural balls at the Washington Convention Center.

Cable is going wall to wall on its own.

"We're going to swarm all over it. This is a very important story for our viewers because of the historic nature and cross-party appeal of Barack Obama and the intensity of the issues that he faces," CNN president Jonathan Klein says.

That's precisely what will keep Washington in the headlines for the foreseeable future in a way we haven't seen in a long time. It isn't exactly the situation David Halberstam described in "The Powers That Be," in which Washington was mostly a backwater before Franklin D. Roosevelt blew into town. But 2008 saw a steep decline in the number of stories out of D.C.

"The lame-duck president became an afterthought," analyst Andrew Tyndall said in his annual report tracking network news stories. "Astonishingly, the White House correspondents at ABC and NBC did not even earn enough assignments to rank in the year's top 20."

Only five D.C. bureau network news correspondents cracked the top 20 in minutes on air in 2008, with NBC's Andrea Mitchell tops by far. NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory missed by one minute having the most network news coverage in 2007 with 230 minutes; in 2008, he didn't even make the list.

This year's coverage story, at least two weeks in, is the D.C. renaissance. White House correspondent suddenly is a hip title again, one that's guaranteed plenty of airtime during the new administration. ABC News' Jake Tapper, a standout on the campaign trail, was awarded the job soon after Obama was elected. CBS News gave its job to Chip Reid. And NBC took an out-of-the-box approach, installing Todd, the network's political director who had no reporting experience before but made his mark during the campaign.

With the nation sinking further into recession and unemployment possibly reaching levels not seen since the Depression era, all eyes will be on D.C.

"All of the battles are going to be pretty much centered around here in Washington, as well as the amount of power the Obama administration is going to be concentrating inside the White House," Todd says.

At least one news executive, however, cautions that the capital is not the be-all and end-all.

"You've got to field an A-team in Washington," Klein says. "At the same time, you can't ignore the rest of the country. Washington is where the decisions are being made; the rest of the country is where the decisions will be carried out."