Seizing Control: A Better Way to Cover the White House

Five ways to shift leverage from the government to the press and public

White House Press Secretarty Jay Carney talks about President Obama's meeting with Senate Republicans earlier in the day at the White House, October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government shutdown is entering its eleventh day as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives remain gridlocked on funding the federal government. 
National Journal
Ron Fournier
May 1, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

The typ­ic­al White House re­port­er con­siders Pres­id­ent Obama’s team the most se­cret­ive in memory, stingi­er with in­form­a­tion than the tight-lipped Bush White House and, ac­cord­ing to a Politico sur­vey, prone to lie. The press corps also is re­l­at­ively in­ex­per­i­enced, with 39 per­cent on the beat five years or less, and nearly 60 per­cent in their first dec­ade.

Most of these ex­traordin­ary re­port­ers were nev­er stone­walled by Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s team, de­ceived by Bush’s ad­visers or bul­lied by any of their pre­de­cessors. I was. Yes, I’m pretty old. With age comes the ex­per­i­ence and ar­rog­ance re­quired to ad­vise the hard-work­ing White House press corps. Here are five sug­ges­tions (con­fes­sion: I didn’t al­ways abide by them while on the beat, but wish I had): 

Don’t let the White House set the ground rules. Everything a White House of­fi­cial does, says or writes is on the re­cord, mean­ing it can be re­por­ted at your dis­cre­tion, un­less you de­term­ine that it’s in your audi­ence’s best in­terest to ad­just the rules.

Some vi­tal in­form­a­tion can only be ob­tained by grant­ing an­onym­ity. That de­cision rests with you and your ed­it­ors alone. It’s a rare bit of lever­age. Don’t cede it to the gov­ern­ment.

How does this play in the real world, where re­port­ers are com­pet­ing for in­form­a­tion that the White House jeal­ously guards? Here are three scen­ari­os:

1.  The pres­id­ent storms in­to the me­dia cab­in aboard Air Force One to gripe about his cov­er­age, and pree­mpt­ively de­clares the ses­sion “off the re­cord.” That would mean you can’t write or broad­cast what he says. But everything the man says is news to your audi­ence. You’re a re­port­er, not a priest. What do you do? You could do as I did with Pres­id­ent Clin­ton after the Ok­lahoma City bomb­ing: ac­qui­esce. I don’t re­com­mend this ap­proach (Clin­ton’s rant against con­ser­vat­ive me­dia en route to Ok­lahoma leaked out, as things al­ways do, and I had to ex­plain to an angry ed­it­or why I didn’t re­port this im­port­ant piece of pres­id­en­tial psy­cho­logy).

Or you could main­tain your lever­age: Po­litely in­form the pres­id­ent that what he says is on the re­cord. “I’m tak­ing notes, sir, and will file my story be­fore the plane lands.” He will protest. His aides and even your fel­low re­port­ers will get angry.

Hold your ground. Re­mind them of the old­est rule in journ­al­ism: There must be a mu­tu­al agree­ment to re­move news from the re­cord. Don’t agree to their terms. Stick to yours. Take your notes and file. (Dur­ing the 2004 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, John Kerry vis­ited the the me­dia cab­in of his plane and said he would talk to us “off the re­cord.”  I said no; he was on re­cord, and I scribbled in my note­book. Kerry stormed back to his seat and I used the new-found time to fin­ish two pro­jects: a story about his fad­ing cam­paign and a cold beer.)

On his most re­cent for­eign trip, aboard Air Force One, an em­battled Obama whined to re­port­ers about their cov­er­age. Whatever he said wasn’t shared with the Amer­ic­an pub­lic.  

2. The press sec­ret­ary walks in­to the brief­ing room flanked by two seni­or pres­id­en­tial ad­visers for what he calls “a back­ground brief­ing.” This would mean you can re­port their claims, but you can’t dis­close the of­fi­cials’ names. This poses three prob­lems. First, in­form­a­tion from an­onym­ous sources car­ries less weight with your audi­ence than on-the-re­cord ma­ter­i­al. Second, a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial is less likely to de­ceive the pub­lic when his name is at­tached to the lie. Third, this is not your first rodeo: you know these of­fi­cials plan to be on tele­vi­sion later in the day traf­fick­ing the same talk­ing points they fed you “on back­ground.”

You could ac­qui­esce, ced­ing pre­cious con­trol to the gov­ern­ment. You might protest, but that gets you nowhere, be­cause the gov­ern­ment has the lever­age.

Try this: po­litely in­form the press sec­ret­ary that you’re tweet­ing the brief­ing live and on the re­cord. This shifts the lever­age. The press sec­ret­ary now must de­cide wheth­er to con­duct the brief­ing on your terms or stomp out of the room with his talk­ing points. Either way, he doesn’t get what he wants.

3. White House of­fi­cials over­whelm you with angry emails and tele­phone calls. At best, they’re wast­ing your time. At worst, you’re get­ting in­tim­id­ated. Po­litely re­mind the of­fi­cials that every email and tele­phone call is on the re­cord. In­form them that you think their com­mu­nic­a­tions would make a good story. “Is this what the tax­pay­ers want you do­ing with your time?” Trust me, the ab­use will stop. Read here about the last time I flipped the script.

Don’t worry about rough cov­er­age hurt­ing re­la­tion­ships and ac­cess (ac­tu­ally, it helps). You want to be a fair re­port­er, some­body who takes the beat ser­i­ously and re­spects (even likes) the people you cov­er. You also want to be a tough re­port­er, some­body who gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials fret about. You can be both fair and tough.

Something I learned cov­er­ing the Clin­ton and Bush White Houses: A new re­port­er spends months, if not years, call­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and beg­ging them for in­form­a­tion. “What are you work­ing on?” Once that re­port­er starts un­earth­ing con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion and writ­ing in­cis­ive ana­lyses that knocks the gov­ern­ment off script, the lever­age shifts: Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials call the re­port­er pro­act­ively to ask, “What are you work­ing on?” That’s when the re­port­er real­izes she owns the beat.

A story: I left journ­al­ism for about a year to help launch a (failed) star­tup. Among my part­ners were sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ants, all former White House ad­visers who met with me one day to plot how we could get pos­it­ive cov­er­age about our new com­pany. Some­body sug­ges­ted that we pitch the story to a re­port­er I won’t identi­fy, a name-brand journ­al­ist who was known to write fa­vor­ably, ha­bitu­ally, about his sources. “Not him,” one of the con­sult­ants said. “Nobody will take his story ser­i­ously. Every­body know he’s in the tank.” An­oth­er re­port­er was nom­in­ated, a vet­er­an polit­ic­al re­port­er who every­body in the room con­sidered to be tough, skep­tic­al and fair. “She’s a pain. She prob­ably won’t buy what we’re selling,” a former pres­id­en­tial ad­viser said, “but if she does, we’re golden.”

Be that re­port­er, the one whose re­spect the White House cov­ets without tak­ing for gran­ted.

Don’t go to White House brief­ings. They’re a waste of time. The press sec­ret­ary rarely makes news and, when he does, the in­form­a­tion is a stale com­mod­ity; every­body gets it. While your com­pet­it­ors rot away in the brief­ing room, slip out­side the gates and grab a meal or cup of cof­fee with a po­ten­tial source, ideally one who doesn’t work in the White House. Blow­ing off brief­ings is a com­pet­it­ive ad­vant­age.

Cov­er the White House from the “out­side in.” That’s the phrase used by Car­en Bo­han of Re­u­ters to de­scribe her mas­tery of agen­cies and le­gis­lat­ive of­fices dis­con­nec­ted from the White House vault. When Politico asked for tips on how to cov­er the White House, Jonath­an Karl of ABC News said, “By go­ing out­side the White House ““ to Con­gress, the Pentagon, the State De­part­ment or the polit­ic­al world.”

I used to joke that on any im­port­ant story, there might be five White House aides who had the in­form­a­tion I needed, and if worked my butt off, I might get two of them on the tele­phone. If I got really lucky, one of those two aides would tell me half the truth. The les­son in that hy­per­bole is that the White House is a small place with a tight hold on in­form­a­tion. The only way to get your arms around the beat is to get your hands dirty in oth­er parts of Wash­ing­ton.

Use the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation Din­ner to the pub­lic’s ad­vant­age. For my first dec­ade or so in Wash­ing­ton, the din­ner was a use­ful way for me to build re­la­tion­ships with po­ten­tial sources. The smal­lest of small-talk helped me bet­ter un­der­stand them: Are they driv­en by ego or van­ity? Do we have any­thing in com­mon (a home state or hobby, even) that might build trust?  What makes them angry enough to leak con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion? Do we have a mu­tu­al in­terest to re­veal ma­ter­i­al to the pub­lic? Know­ledge like this helps shake loose the in­form­a­tion that the pub­lic needs to know.

In the last dec­ade or so, the din­ner has de­volved in­to a show­case for celebrit­ies and a pay­off for ad­vert­isers. There are few­er source-build­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for the many White House cor­res­pond­ents, gems like Bo­han and Karl, who know how to seize con­trol of a beat.

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