One of the ongoing leitmotifs of Washington is the White House press corps feeling manipulated and shut out. I mean those reporters who cover the White House as a full-time assignment as opposed to say, TV network anchors or national political reporters, who may swoop into the West Wing for an occasional story. For what’s considered one of the plum posts in journalism, it’s remarkable how often the White House reporters are in a state of dyspepsia.
This weekend those tensions went public when the press corps learned of the president’s golf outing with Tiger Woods through a tweet by a Golf Digest writer who had access to the clubhouse at the Florida course where the president was playing. The White House press office seems to have circumvented the “pool” system whereby members of the White House press corps travel with the president to events and is kept informed of his whereabouts. The head of the White House Correspondents Association, Ed Henry, told Politico Monday night: "This is a fight for more access, period.... I've heard all kinds of critics saying the White House press corps is whining about a golf game and violating the president's privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth."
"We're not interested in violating the president's privacy. He's entitled to vacations like everyone else. All we're asking for is a brief exception, quick access, a quick photo-op on the 18th green," Henry continued. "It's not about golf — it's about transparency and access in a broader sense."
For its part, Politico ran a lengthy article, by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, dubbing Obama a “puppet master” for his manipulation of the press. The two cited a slew of modern techniques that manipulated the press corps, such as denying interviews to top-tier newspapers such as The New York Times and producing massive amounts of content — photos, stories, and so on — that budget-strapped outlets might pick up and which would present the president in a positive light. “President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping, and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House,” they declared. Is this an affront to the First Amendment, or whining? I lean toward the latter.
I come at this from a couple of perspectives. I was a member of the White House press corps for U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic in the '90s. I covered the George W. Bush White House for Time and was the managing editor for White House coverage when I first came to National Journal in 2010. For what it’s worth, I worked with Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, at Time for almost seven years. He and I switched jobs in 2003. I covered the White House with the indefatigable Mike Allen. I have huge respect for the White House press corps. It’s a tough and important job and the folks who do it are smart and dedicated.
That said, it’s worth keeping some things in mind.
Each White House is less open than the one before. When I started covering the White House in 1993, the press corps was furious that physical access to the “lower press office,” where junior and mid-level press aides sit, had been restricted. (It was later opened up.) There were elegiac memories of Marlin Fitzwater, President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary, who reporters considered to have been more open in comparison with the Clinton crowd, who were said to neither understand nor respect the press corps. When I covered the George W. Bush White House for a couple of years, the press corps nursed fond memories of Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, and complaints about Ari Fleischer were commonplace. It’s probably worth remembering that the Kennedy administration, sometimes cited as a golden age of press access, wasn’t all that open. Would today’s press corps want to find itself serving as an intermediary between governments, as John Scali of ABC News was during the Cuban missile crisis?
Each administration takes greater liberties to spin the news than the one before, which is utterly unsurprising. State and local governments do the same. So do corporations.
The real question is what’s lost in the process. Some, but not much, I’d say. The loss of scripted sessions such as “read outs” — behind-the-scenes accounts of presidential meetings as described by White House aides — is a loss, but not one that would have deterred a Bob Woodward or Ryan Lizza from richly reported accounts of the White House. (Granted they’re not in the sealed world of the White House press corps, but the point still stands.)
"The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and others in years," Politico argues. “These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.” This is a debatable point. The major media aren’t at the head of the line anymore, but this is hardly news. (For it’s part, National Journal had a sitdown with the president in the fall of 2010 when it relaunched.)
It’s not that bad when the press misses out on a golf game, but it was when the Obama White House let Chinese media into a presidential meeting with the Chinese premier and didn't invite the White House press corps.
Unfortunately, like AARP or the NRA, the White House Correspondents Association, of which I’m a member, feels obliged to take an absolutist line between becoming agitated by a modest trespass and a more serious one. Get rolled on Tiger Woods and pretty soon there are fewer interviews and what not. Stomp your feet over something modest before it gets out of hand. I get it.
As for the other complaints, hey, grow up. One of the beefs with the White House is that they’re producing lots of content for media outlets — especially photos that can be run in newspapers. As my former colleague Brooks Kraft, a Time photographer, notes, “White House handout photos used to be reserved for historically important events — 9/11, or deliberations about war. I don’t blame the White House for doing it, because networks and newspapers use them. So the White House has built its own content.” But for Politico to cite this as master manipulation seems overwrought. If the press corps doesn’t spring for an AP photo, that’s not the White House’s fault.
Look, in a perfect world the president would hold more press conferences and have more availabilities. As anyone who’s worked in government, as I have, can tell you, these moments, while often resisted by public officials and their communications staff, can help hone a president or a candidate, getting them more up to speed on a bunch of issues.
The greater threat from the Obama administration isn’t the usual playing of head games with the White House press corps; it’s the aggressive prosecution of both the people who leak government information and the reporters who receive it. I have some skin in the game on this too, having been involved in the CIA leak case that began 10 years ago when I wrote about how the White House was waging a war on Joe Wilson. The aggressive prosecution of leaks and the invocation of once-dormant statutes to go after leakers and reporters threatens to shut down real and vital sources of information, such as the Bush administration's massive domestic surveillance program that took place outside the courts set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Ask reporters, such as James Risen of the New York Times, who have been in the legal crosshairs for their role in reporting on intelligence issues. Those are the things we really need to know. The president’s golf score? Oh, please.