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John Dedakis on Write What You Know

John DeDakis is the author of the Lark Cahdwick series of thrillers. You can find out more about him on his website www.johndedakis.com, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and buy his books here.

I’m frequently asked if there’s any one story I covered during my forty-five year career as a journalist that made its way into any of my novels. The short answer is . . . it’s complicated.

The stories I’m most proud of were the pieces I did on “media bias” when I was a White House correspondent during the last three years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

I look back on those days as pivotal in my development as a novelist because criticism of journalism has only intensified since then. In my reporting, as well as in my novels, I’ve tried to give people a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.

In June 1986 I did a comprehensive piece on the White House press corps vs. the president. It was also the first and only time I’ve ever been in the Holy of Holies of American politics: The Oval Office.

My photographer, Tony Black, sound tech Kerry O’Berry, and I spent a day following around White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes to show the interplay between Reagan’s press office and the White House press corps.

ABC’s Sam Donaldson probably summed it up best when he told me, “It’s the adversarial relationship: Larry Speakes is on one side of the fence and I’m on the other side. What he’s trying to do is to make certain the president’s policies, plans, programs, intentions, are put forward in, if possible, a perfect light. On the other hand, I’m trying to find out what’s really going on here.”

At one point during the day, Speakes got the green light to bring us into the Oval Office to get some video (known in the biz as “B-roll”) of him meeting briefly with the president.

We had to wait for a few minutes in a small holding room off the Oval. Burly, stern-faced, eagled-eyed Secret Service agents glared at us before we were allowed to follow Larry into the president’s presence. 

The Oval Office is bigger than I expected, with a high ceiling that causes sound to bounce around the room. Reagan sat at the iconic Resolute Desk; Larry took a seat next to it and they chitchatted while Tony got his shots.

After a few moments, I asked Reagan if he found it “frustrating” that the relationship between the press and the presidency is adversarial.

“To a certain extent, yes,” he said. “It sometimes seems less of a hunt for news than to see if they can’t catch ya.”

Looking back, I probably should have asked a follow-up: “Catch ya doing what? Telling the truth about what’s really going on?”

I did the stand-up close for the piece on the sidewalk just outside the briefing room with the West Wing entrance in the background.  After one of my takes, I examined the shot as Tony played it back. It looked to me as if my forehead gleamed too much, but I didn’t carry around any makeup or powder, so I scooped up some dirt from a flowerbed and wiped it across my brow to cut down on the glare. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that television news isn’t also show biz.)

I think what I said in my stand-up is just as true today as it was in 1986:

“To reporters, the White House is out to stage manage the news. To the White House press office, reporters are out to ‘get’ the president. Both sides are right. And both sides believe what they’re doing is in the public’s best interest. And it’s not likely that either side is about to change its tactics.”

My piece now lives in infamy on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0il1MJdklUs&list=PLXDV_HPUqtvvV-j0lyb2BsaZNSW3GCcDP&index=64

Thirty years later, in 2016, my protagonist Lark Chadwick would first set foot in the Oval Office as a reporter for the Associated Press in my fourth novel, Bullet in the Chamber, and again in Fake, my most recent novel.

In my sixth novel, Enemies Domestic, Lark is starting her new gig as White House press secretary. I’m about three quarters of the way through writing the first draft, but it’s been a struggle. Please pray for me—and her.

John DeDakis

Award-winning novelist, writing coach, and manuscript editor John DeDakis is a former editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." DeDakis is the author of five mystery-suspense-thriller novels. In his most recent novel, FAKE, protagonist Lark Chadwick is a White House correspondent dealing with “fake news” in the era of #MeToo. His website is at www.johndedakis.com

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I am soooo jealous! You got in The Oval?? I only got into the press room, although I did sit in Helen Thomas’ seat. That was in the Clinton Administration for a press conference with Hillary. And I agree with you. A journalist’s job is to find out what’s really going on.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thanks, Anne….. Helen was unpretentious. I brought her in to speak to one of the journalism classes I taught at American University. The students were supposed to cover her talk as if it was a news story. One lede was, “She looks like a little ole lady in tennis shoes, but when she opens her mouth, watch out!”

  2. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    What a fun memory of your important job as a journalist! Looking forward to that new book with Lark as the White House press secretary.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thanks, Christine……. Wrote another thousand words today. Getting close to the end…….of draft one.

  3. joyribar
    joyribar

    I’m so thrilled that you shared this experience, John. I worked as a lowly newspaper reporter for a small daily and even smaller weekly, so I am in awe of your position. That relationship between government and press must be adversarial, in my opinion, in order for our democracy to keep moving forward. There’s a time and place when the relationship can be trustworthy, but each professional often has different goals, and there’s the rub. I hope you get past the bumpy phase of your manuscript quickly.

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    One thing we can expect from your character is veracity!

  5. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    I taught journalism and have several former students who are in the profession, so I have a kind of academic slant on the subject. I found your post fascinating, and wish you the best with Lark and her adventures.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thank you, Sara……. I’ll need all the luck I can get.

  6. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Great post, John! Thank you for sharing this story. I enjoyed getting to know you and your background better.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thanks, Margaret…..

  7. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    ‘What an experience to cover the white house at that time. I think adversarial is the right way most of the time.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thanks, Carl….. You’re right. The relationship need not be adversarial, and often it isn’t, but sometimes it’s necessary.

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    John, lucky you getting into the Oval Office! I’ve been in the White House, but only as a tourist. I look forward to reading your Lark Chadwick books.

    1. John DeDakis
      John DeDakis

      Thanks, Sherrill……

  9. Avatar
    Jacqueline Vick

    I got into the Oval Office reproduction at the Reagan Library. Does that count? Thanks for sharing some exciting moments from your career.

  10. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Such a cool experience!

  11. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    John — I’ve read and reviewed every one of your books. I love them and look forward to Enemies Domestic.

  12. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    John, I’m jealous too! What an amazing life, John! And now Lark Chadwick can experience your inspiring adventures. I hope she doesn’t get in too much trouble! I look forward to your next book.

  13. John DeDakis
    John DeDakis

    Thanks, Everyone, for your kind and encouraging comments. What a supportive flock you are. ~JD

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