On Monday night’s Daily Show, host Jon Stewart devoted a segment to the pool reporter who was restricted to a storage closet during portions of a fundraising event attended by Vice President Joe Biden. Admirably eschewing an obvious R. Kelly joke, Stewart instead did a “live” bit with a handcuffed Wyatt Cenac, and asked him an excellent question: why do White House reporters put up with the press office’s onerous restrictions? It’s a question I’ve tried to answer before, but Cenac may be onto something.
While the closet episode is certainly an attention-getter, Stewart astutely observes the larger problem, that restricting press access to White House events is standard procedure. A handcuffed, boiler room-bound Cenac explains that reporters are just freaky-deaky gluttons for punishment:
While I don’t think we’re a bunch of kinky masochists, maybe we are gluttons for punishment, to some degree, or at least content to fight for the scraps that the press office tosses our way. Since I’ve been covering the White House beat, there has been a constant drumbeat questioning our relevance, and indeed, our reason to exist. As Ann Compton recently observed, the White House seems only too pleased to replace us any chance they get. Yet when given the chance to confront the White House about “tensions” that developed over the course of the administration’s first year, the White House Correspondents Association focused on protecting the canned access we already have, and on denying access to Richard Wolffe.
With White House events so tightly managed, Stewart is also right to ask why reporters even bother to show up. Obviously, pool reporters are required to do so, but the fact is, for many open press events, a lot of reporters don’t bother to go. For something like a bill signing in the East Room, we’re all packed in like sardines on either side of the seating area, often half-an-hour or longer before the President actually makes his remarks, unable to sit or go anywhere, forbidden to speak with attendees. We then get to see exactly the same thing we’d see on C-Span, then have to wait for an escort back to the briefing room. In the time I’ve covered the White House, fewer and fewer reporters attend such events.
Part of the problem is that the actual White House is not the kind of place where you want to push boundaries. I’ve wandered into various red zones in the past, and they’re not kidding around about keeping you where you’re supposed to be.
But, really, the biggest problem facing the White House press corps is a lack of leverage. In the past, the White House needed the press, to some degree, to get their message out, but not so much anymore. So far, they haven’t paid much of a political price for their tight management of the press, probably because media-bashing has become so popular on both sides of the political spectrum. When, how, or if this will change is anybody’s guess.
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