Washington Post

A White House Coverup of Media Mud

Reporters to Discuss Their Quarry on New Gravel Surface

Thursday, March 26, 1998; Page A21

Once upon a time, a handful of television networks set up some cameras on the White House lawn so their correspondents could go on the air with the famous mansion as a backdrop.

Then came the cable-driven proliferation of media outlets, some of them all-news networks that turned the news cycle into a perpetual motion machine. And then, just as Washington was experiencing its wettest, warmest winter in memory, came a made-for-TV story if there ever was one: the president and the intern.

The result wasn't pretty to look at -- or work in. A large swath of the White House's north lawn had become a muddy morass. Cameras, lights and cables stretched from the Pennsylvania Avenue gate to the circular driveway in front of the Oval Office.

With plastic trash bags over the equipment to keep it dry, wooden pallets over the mud to keep muckraking newsies from sinking into it and chairs over the area to accommodate waiting crew members, the place took on the ragtag ambience of a squatters' camp.

And things soon went from bad to worse. Rats and mice began to nest and breed under the pallets. Rain-soaked power cables administered nasty electrical shocks. Grass became a distant memory.

"We have trashed the place," said John King, White House correspondent for CNN.

But this week, with most of the White House press corps traveling with President Clinton in Africa, the reconquest of the north lawn began.

After long negotiations with the networks, White House officials ordered the equipment removed by Monday morning. They then sent in tractors to prepare the area for the next step: covering it with a layer of packed gravel designed to banish the mud.

The gravel is supposed to be down by the end of next week. And when the TV crews return, one White House official said, they will be required to live by a couple of new rules -- only a minimum amount of equipment will be allowed and it must be covered only by regulation green canvas. No Hefty bags.

"We wanted to prune it without inhibiting anyone's ability to cover the White House," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There's been such a boom in media outlets that it's grown beyond a lot of people's expectations, especially since the situation," the official continued, using the White House's phrase for the Monica Lewinsky matter.

TV personnel assigned to the White House, who also asked to remain anonymous, said they looked forward to the changes.

"It was just a miserable place to work," said one. "There were days when you'd have to spend hours out there in the rain."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company