White House Press Corps Savaged for Threatening ‘Adversarial Tone’


mediaite_thumb1There was a report in US News, yesterday, that has different corners of the blogosphere going at the White House Press Corps like ‘roid-raged 5th graders at a pinata. The criticism centers, not around the corps’ threat of a “more adversarial tone” with the Obama White House, but around the reasons for it:

Print reporters in the White House press corps are seething at perceived slights against them by President Obama and his team. Many print journalists see their role being diminished as Obama and his aides seem to lavish attention on television anchors and reporters and on liberal bloggers, and this is raising the adversarial tone at the daily briefings of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins lets us have it for what he sees as misplaced priorities:

Got that, Robert Gibbs? You are going to get an increased adversarial tone from the press corps if you don’t watch it! Is it because the White House has been obfuscating (on White House visitors), breaking promises (on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), struggling to hold the line on major policy (health care, energy), or dodging key issues (TARP transparency)? No! Because you see, those would all be GOOD reasons to get adversarial with the White House. Instead, the adversity is motivated by the same things that have traditionally motivated the White House Press Corps: status and vanity.

From the right, Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey is slightly kinder, but also uses the report to take a swipe at the larger corps (with kudos to bloggers, Jake Tapper, Major Garrett, and yours truly), saying “most of the White House press corps still seem stuck in ‘How awesomely awesome are you?’ mode.”

While this report is definitely an indicator of something, I disagree with both the assertion that it’s about “status and vanity,” and that the press corps is fawning over the administration.

To Ed’s point, I would say that, to the degree that coverage of the administration is less tough than he would like it, the blame lies elsewhere. The White House reporters can ask all the tough questions in the world, and do, but it means nothing if editors above our pay grade don’t show it. I’m talking mainly about cable news. They only ever show a clip from a briefing if there’s a good “gotcha!” or a rousing back-and-forth. They don’t show the 16 different ways we’ve asked Gibbs about “Don’t ask/Don’t tell,” and gotten the same answer. That’s why he can get away with giving that same answer every time.

As for status and vanity, I don’t doubt that White House reporters are as human as anyone. However, I would say that the individual reporter’s desire to get a question in springs from a slightly nobler source. At a minimum, we need to ask questions, sometimes, so we can get, y’know, paid. More importantly, the job of journalists is to bring our expertise to bear in deciding what stories are important. It would be a pretty crummy journalist who thought he would be better served leaving the questioning to others.

There are inequities in the way the questions are doled out, and they are not confined to the print reporters. For all this talk about bloggers getting the red carpet treatment, there are few of us who get questions in on a regular basis, and even fewer who are granted face time with administration officials.

Furthermore, there isn’t a reporter from the 3rd row on back who doesn’t clench their teeth after a few minutes of the front rows gabbing it up with Gibbs like they’re at the corner bar. Fact is, they deliver Gibbs the eyeballs, so we get what’s left over.

I think what’s at the heart of this report is the emerging battle between old media and new, a phenomenon that played heavily into the Nico Pitney brouhaha. This is evident in the fact that this report specifically singles out print reporters, members of a medium in crisis. As one of the new kids in the room, I’ve felt some of that hostility, and I get it. I didn’t work my way up from proofreader or obituary writer. By the same token, bloggers dove into press conferences during the campaign and proved the value of our voices. I don’t think that needs to be at the expense of print reporters, just as their inclusion shouldn’t have to mean our exclusion. Let the TV guys wind it up a little faster, I say.

I also think that, perhaps, the US News reporter misinterpreted the meaning of “adversarial tone.”

I would think that this had more to do with adherence to the niceties of press conference etiquette. In the daily press briefings, things are looser, but there are still invisible boundaries in place. Folks in the back several rows raise their hands and hope they get called on. Sometimes, a reporter will shout a question out of turn under the guise of “same subject,” with about a 50% rate of success and 100% rate of dirty looks. At Presidential events, there is very little, if any, of this. Robert Gibbs even noted this in avoiding a question about the death of Michael Jackson. I think this is the kind of “playing nice” that the print media is losing patience with.

These prime-time news conferences are fine, in theory, but in practice, they tend to be less effective at extracting truth and more effective at delivering the administration’s message. The format almost requires this, from the time restriction, to the influx of tourist reporters, to the pre-selection of questioners. If you watch the President’s June 23 press conference in the briefing room, you’ll see a completely different dynamic. While not quite as loose as a normal briefing, there’s a lot more give-and-take.

I think we can all agree that everyone would be better served if there were more voices asking more questions, not the same voices fighting over a shrinking plate of scraps.

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