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Mr. Axelrod Goes To Washington

There are few reporting jobs more important, romantic, visible and sometimes downright miserable than the coveted White House correspondent slot. Whether the medium is print, radio, television or even online, covering an administration guarantees a regular place in the paper or on a broadcast. It also comes with more than a fair share of constraints and challenges, however, as information and even physical movement is tightly controlled. With this morning's announcement by CBS News that Jim Axelrod will soon be taking the slot of chief White House correspondent for the network, we sought him out to discuss his approach to the job.

Axelrod has been what he called a "bureau correspondent" for the past nine years, a position that has called on him to cover a wide variety of stories, often on very short notice. While he spent time in 2004 covering the presidential election, he has not had a true political beat since reporting on the North Carolina state legislature for WRAL-TV in Raleigh. Saying he is "properly overwhelmed" by the prospect of covering the White House, Axelrod realizes he's about to go "from zero to a hundred and twenty" in short order.

Asked whether his background was a virtue or handicap, Axelrod said it's both. "This is more than just reading the paper in the morning, so to that extent, yeah, it's an overwhelming thing to sort of get up and running," he said. "On the other hand, I think fresh eyes are always an advantage, especially in journalism. How many times have we heard that whole idea about 'inside-the-beltway?' And you know what? I'm not a creature of the beltway, so I think there's probably some merit, some value" in an outside perspective. "Until I'm completely absorbed by the machine and end up a creature of the beltway, hopefully I'll be able to maintain a sense of freshness and vision and be able to supply the viewers with a sort of translation." Axelrod added that he has a competitive mandate in mind as well, saying, "we badly want to be the place where people tune in to find out what's going on among the network broadcasts. That's our goal, nothing less."

When asked about the frustration White House reporters sometimes experience because of the tightly-controlled flow of information, Axelrod said, "this is the thing I've been thinking most about." And he said there is no magic formula to deal with it. "I have a great deal of respect for people who have been doing this. There are a lot of smart people who sit in that press room, and if they haven't found a way to sort of crack the code, that's probably because the code is, I don't want to say it's unbreakable, but it's obviously encrypted pretty well."

That said, Axelrod does see opportunity as the Bush administration heads into its final years. "I've got to believe that agendas change, that leading up to the midterm elections, the place, the maturity of the presidency itself, enters into a different phase and I assume that different people's agendas will bubble up and perhaps there will be a little shaking. I know it's a loyal place, but in 2006, people start wondering about two years from now and jobs and connections and maybe they have more of an incentive to talk." Still, he acknowledged that "a lot of journalism is about building relationships, it really is and I think the first thing that I want to do is try to establish some relationships in the White House."

When I asked Axlerod if he considered himself a political junkie or policy wonk, he noted that the "wide variety" of stories a general assignment correspondent covers can leave one feeling "a mile wide and an inch deep" sometimes. But he added, "I've always loved politics, I sort of cut my teeth on it in local television. There's nothing more important to our culture, our society, than examining the rules we live by. If you don't have an interest in that, you might want to check your pulse."

When it comes to the issue of bias, Axlerod said he strives to be fair, saying, "when I cover a sports story or when I cover a war or cover any topic, I always have this conversation with myself on the ride home – was I fair? Was it a fair representation? I think there's an obligation for that." Axelrod adds, "in the legal world, a good defense attorney may think his client is guilty but is committed to the idea of giving that client the best defense possible so that the whole system benefits and we keep the system strong. And I kind of think of it the same way. … My job is to filter, my job is to make sure to build a firewall, if you will, so I can look at a script and say this is a fair and accurate representation of what was going on."

When it comes to the really important things, Washington should brace itself for a new New York Giants fan in Redskin city. But Axelrod is going with the AFC team in the Super Bowl, picking the Pittsburgh Steelers to win one for their coach. "It's got to be the Steelers, I'm a huge Bill Cower fan, huge. This is a guy who keeps the media waiting so he can call his daughter to find out how she did in her basketball game in Princeton – that's my kind of guy."