How White House Reporters Can Reclaim Their Beat

Tips to “flip the script” and seize control from presidents, CEOs, and leaders of other institutions.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
July 24, 2014, 6:59 a.m.

Paul Far­hi of The Wash­ing­ton Post writes today about a trend at the White House — and throughout journ­al­ism — that threatens the qual­ity and cred­ib­il­ity of news-gath­er­ing: Pub­lic-re­la­tions “mind­ers” are in­ject­ing them­selves in­to our in­ter­views with politi­cians, CEOs, and oth­er poli­cy­makers.

Mind­er mad­ness joins the surge of “back­ground brief­ings” and the de­cline of ac­cess to de­cision-makers as evid­ence that the White House — and oth­er big in­sti­ti­tu­tions — are ma­nip­u­lat­ing the press.  It’s that, but it’s also something worse: It’s evid­ence that journ­al­ists are ced­ing con­trol when they should be seiz­ing it, ac­cept­ing canned news rather than break­ing it.

Far­hi writes, “Al­most every of­fi­cially sanc­tioned ex­change between re­port­ers and the pro­ver­bi­al ‘seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials’ is con­duc­ted in the pres­ence of a press staffer, even when the in­ter­view is ‘on back­ground,’ mean­ing the source will not be iden­ti­fied by name.”

Journ­al­ists tend to view mind­ers with sus­pi­cion, if not out­right alarm. A third party can al­ter any in­ter­ac­tion in un­fore­seen ways. One White House re­port­er notes with ir­rit­a­tion that mind­ers have some­times cut off con­ten­tious ques­tion­ing or oth­er­wise in­ter­rup­ted the flow of con­ver­sa­tion.

More broadly, journ­al­ists see it as part of a lar­ger of­fi­cial ef­fort to shape their cov­er­age, sim­il­ar to de­mands to ap­prove quotes be­fore they’re pub­lished or to keep even the most mundane in­form­a­tion off the re­cord.

“If you have a mind­er there, it sits in [a source’s] brain that they’re sup­posed to stay on mes­sage,” said Peter Baker, who cov­ers the White House for the New York Times. “They’re less likely to share something oth­er than the talk­ing points.” Hav­ing mind­ers around, Baker says, “is ob­vi­ously in­ten­ded to con­trol the mes­sage. Let’s put it this way: It’s not in­ten­ded to in­crease candor.”

Be­fore shar­ing a few les­sons that I learned the hard way on the White House and cam­paign beats, I should dis­pense with the caveats. First, an­onym­ous sources are a cru­cial way to un­cov­er news that gov­ern­ments, cor­por­a­tions, and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions seek to cov­er up. Second, brief­ings with an­onym­ous sources (“on back­ground”) ar­ranged by these en­tit­ies can oc­ca­sion­ally be re­veal­ing. Third, not all stor­ies re­quire ac­cess to a de­cision-maker, and con­duct­ing an in­ter­view with a PR “mind­er” in the room doesn’t have to curb the journ­al­ist­ic ex­per­i­ence.

More of­ten than not, however, re­port­ers are crippled by these and oth­er pub­lic-re­la­tions schemes. We whine and protest, we write ed­it­or­i­als and angry let­ters, but we don’t use the full range of journ­al­ist­ic lever­age to seize con­trol of the re­la­tion­ship. We don’t flip the script.

  • The White House is set­ting the ground rules for cov­er­ing the pres­id­ent. Why? Good re­port­ers con­trol the terms of play.
  • Many re­port­ers op­er­ate un­der the as­sump­tion that they need the co­oper­a­tion of a PR spokes­men more than the spokes­men need them. That’s wrong. We can do our jobs without so-called flacks.
  • Many ed­it­ors and re­port­ers are afraid to get beat on a story if they don’t play by the PR rules. Flout their rules. Make them fear you.

Back to Far­hi’s im­port­ant story. Deep in­side it, he tells read­ers that White House spokes­man Eric Schultz de­clined re­peated re­quests for an in­ter­view to dis­cuss the “mind­er” muddle.  In­stead, Schultz is­sued a state­ment sug­gest­ing the mind­er op­er­a­tion is in the best in­terest of re­port­ers and the pub­lic — a laugh­able as­ser­tion.

I com­pli­men­ted Far­hi on Twit­ter for his piece, and asked why he pub­lished the state­ment. He replied.

In Far­hi’s de­fense, a story about White House me­dia strategy is ar­gu­ably rich­er with a canned quote from a White House flack. Far­hi made it clear to his read­ers that Schultz was short-chan­ging them.

Still, I say flip the script. Tell Schultz, “If you want your point of view in my story, re­turn my call.” That shifts the lever­age. He must de­cide how much he wants the Wash­ing­ton Post plat­form. (Pro tip: He wants it badly.)

Some re­port­ers ar­gued that Far­hi was ob­lig­ated to pub­lish the White House state­ment. Why? Un­less the state­ment suited his journ­al­ist­ic mis­sion — which is hold­ing the White House ac­count­able — why print it?

Schultz’s state­ment was a press re­lease. No news or­gan­iz­a­tion pub­lishes every White House state­ment. Pres­id­ent Obama has his own web­site. Schultz can post his state­ment there. In my opin­ion, Schultz should earn the way onto the The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s site with a simple tele­phone call.

A “no com­ment” doesn’t hurt your story. But it can hurt the people you cov­er. (Read this column and ask Sen. Joe Manchin’s com­mu­nic­a­tions team wheth­er he should have re­turned my call a week ago rather than hide be­hind a state­ment).

It’s OK to play hard­ball. Play fair. Be trans­par­ent and hon­est. But cov­er­ing mas­ters of the uni­verse isn’t, as they say, bean­bag.

On the is­sue of “mind­ers” raised in Fahri’s piece, I usu­ally don’t ob­ject when a spokes­man joins my in­ter­views, be­cause I won’t let them con­trol it. There is also something to be learned. A de­cision-maker who needs a PR babysit­ter is pro­ject­ing some level of weak­ness and/or lack of con­fid­ence — and I’ll in­ject that find­ing in­to my cov­er­age.

But some re­port­ers hate mind­ers. They can flip the script.

Again, this only works if you and your ed­it­ors agree that journ­al­ists set the ground rules, that it’s OK to an­ger your sources, and that this par­tic­u­lar story is im­port­ant enough to de­mand an in­ter­view. If a story is that im­port­ant and you settle for less, you’ve ceded con­trol. Worse, you’ve sold out the pub­lic.

There’s the prob­lem of de­cision-makers in­sist­ing that they only be quoted “on back­ground” (an­onym­ously), even when the re­port­er wants the quotes at­trib­uted (“on the re­cord”). In such cases, the an­swer is simple.

Re­mem­ber, a spokes­man gets paid to get his or her point of view in your story. They need you. Don’t cede that lever­age for any­thing less than the terms you need to serve your read­ers. Write a tough story, and they’ll call back de­mand­ing an up­date with their point of view. That’s when you po­litely re­mind them that they’re on the re­cord.

What can the me­dia do about the ex­plo­sion of “back­ground brief­ings”? Any­time you think one should be on the re­cord, stand up (or speak up) at the start of the brief­ing and po­litely in­form who­ever’s in charge that the event in “on the re­cord.”  Don’t ask. Tell them.

I did this a few times, most mem­or­ably dur­ing the 2004 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign when Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee John Kerry wanted to chat with re­port­ers aboard his plane. He wanted it to be “off the re­cord,” which means whatever he wanted to say could nev­er be re­por­ted. Years ago, I agreed to sim­il­ar terms aboard Air Force One with Pres­id­ent Clin­ton, and watched in hor­ror as com­pet­it­ors vi­ol­ated the terms. My ed­it­or wasn’t happy with me. With that memory, I po­litely told Kerry that I would be tak­ing notes and fil­ing.

Kerry had a choice. He could chat with us on my terms (a “win-win”) or walk away. He stormed back to his cab­in, and I got back to writ­ing an ana­lys­is of his flail­ing cam­paign.

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