White House Media Don't Have the Likes of Sam Donaldson Anymore

Sam Donaldson was one of the last "first-draft writers."

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Sam Donaldson, who this weekend announced his retirement from ABC News, is a first-draft writer. First-draft writers have the ability to write a draft the first time and get it right. They can size up a news story and compose their news report in their head, then write it without any changes. No delete button, no cutting and pasting. Just type it up, perfectly written, and hand it in. No "get me rewrite." Most first-draft writers are now in their 70s, like Sam. No one younger than that seems to know how to do it. They are a dying breed.

I know this about Sam because many years ago I worked at ABC News. In the mid-1980s, I was a "gofer" in the offices of Weekend News, which Sam anchored on Saturday nights in addition to his duties on the round table for This Week W ith David Brinkley. My job entailed things like writing thank-you notes to guests on the show and making sure the producers had enough coffee (thus the reference: time to "go fer" more coffee). But then the writers' strike came along, and the bosses moved me down to the newsroom to fill in for the striking gofers there. That's where I saw Sam, unlike the other high-profile anchors, write his own copy. This was not because there was a writers' strike: Sam always wrote his own copy instead of relying on the news writer. He sat at the anchor desk, pulled out a portable typewriter, and composed his first—and only—draft of the anchor script on old-fashioned carbon paper. Sam wrote quickly and accurately. He got it right on the first draft every time.

They don't make writers like that anymore.

Two jobs later, I'll never forget my first day at work, in the White House in January of 1989. The phone in the speechwriting office rang, and the secretary buzzed me at my desk on the intercom. "Some guy who says he's Sam Donaldson is on the phone for you," she said, her voice dripping with contempt for the impostor, presumably some high school buddy of mine. Instead, it really was Sam—calling from the White House Press Room to wish me good luck in my new job. I was thrilled that he remembered me and was touched that a front-row network correspondent would look after a gofer like me. I remember him telling me that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers, and never to be afraid to ask any question. Good advice from a guy who knows how to ask questions.

Can most people even name a current White House correspondent? There sure aren't any Sam Donaldsons in the press room these days.

Whether you liked him or not, we can all agree that the questions Sam asked—and the way he asked them—changed the way presidents and the press approach each other. How appropriate that he announced his retirement on Presidents Day.

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