DC Gossips Go to War

'I’ve never seen the competition so intense'

By: Harry Jaffe

When is the Washington Post going to put Mary Ann Akers on contract?

Friday’s Reliable Source gossip column was the third time in the last two months the Post has had to follow Akers’s scoops in Roll Call, a four-day-a-week newspaper that covers Congress and Capitol Hill.

In April, the Post’s Reliable Source cited Roll Call in reporting on an incident in which a fitness instructor made fun of President Bush while First Daughters Barbara and Jenna worked out in the class. Akers got the tip from a friend of the daughters who was in the room.

In May, Al Kamen cited Roll Call in his In the Loop column item about lobbyist Michael Scanlon, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Akers had broken the news that Scanlon was getting a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins for his study of—good grief—the history of the House ethics process.

Is there a Washington gossip war?

“Absolutely,” says Amy Argetsinger, one of the two Reliable Source writers. “I hope so.”

But Argetsinger seemed miffed that I would broach the fact that she and her colleague, Roxanne Roberts, have been battling neck and neck with Akers.

“If someone gets there first, it’s a disservice to the readers if they refuse to pick it up,” she said. “It’s how news gets out.”

News as gossip in Washington is getting out in many more places. The capital city’s media will never reach the gossip heights—or depths—of Manhattan’s tabloid wars, but the market for dirty laundry is growing.

“It’s a good time for gossip in DC,” Argetsinger says. “There’s Karen Feld in the Examiner, McCaslin in the Washington Times, Roll Call and the Hill, and blogs. We all have very different audiences; the overlap is small. It’s not like the Post versus the Daily News in New York—sadly.”

Says John McCaslin, who has been writing Inside the Beltway for the Washington Times since 1992: “There are all kinds of new pressures out there. I’ve never seen the competition so intense.”

There’s also Wonkette’s daily dish on the Internet. And Paul Bedard’s Washington Whispers in U.S. News and its Web site.

Still, McCaslin says, “There’s more than enough to go around.”

Except on the occasions when Mary Ann Akers whips the Post. Akers, 37, has been writing Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill column for two years.

“It’s hard to write fresh, exclusive items four days a week,” says Akers, “especially when you write it all by yourself with no assistant. I'm so lucky I have great colleagues who really cover my back, give me tips, and sometimes write items for me.

“We could do a great gossip column if I had a full-time assistant or a colleague,” she adds. “We are a small newspaper.”

The Post is a gossip megaphone with a daily circulation of just under 700,000, the most powerful Web site in town, and a radio station to air its gossip across the region.

Argetsinger and Roberts are writing the Reliable Source in its fifth phase, which seems to run in three-year cycles. Lois Romano started the mix of news and gossip in 1992. She was followed by Ann Gerhart and Annie Groer; Lloyd Grove; and Richard Leiby

Under Argetsinger and Roberts, the Reliable Source is an entertaining diet of items from the party scene, politics, diplomatic circles, Hollywood, and books. They write five days a week. It’s juicy some days, bland others.

Akers, who was a top candidate for the Reliable Source job, has a narrower focus, mainly Capitol Hill politics. On the occasions when the Post does follow her scoops, it’s generous enough to give her credit—or at least mention her publication.