Friday, Apr 28, 2017

Five myths about the White House press corps

When 27-year-old reporter William W. Price came to Washington from South Carolina in 1895, there was no such thing as a White House beat. Then Price, working for the Washington Evening Star, began calling himself a “White House correspondent” and getting stories about President Grover Cleveland, and a beat was born. Today, White House reporters are promising to hold the new president, like his predecessors, to account. But relations are tense, fuelled partly by the administration’s desire to weaken a group it has called an “opposition party” and partly by misunderstandings about the beat. Here are five stubborn ones.
* Myth No 1: The daily briefing is a waste of time
In recent years, former White House press secretaries (Ari Fleischer and Mike McCurry), former White House reporters (Ron Fournier and James Warren) and political partisans (Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity) have embraced this theory. “They’re a waste of time,” Fournier wrote. “They are redolent with tradition and an air of media entitlement,” Warren commented in Vanity Fair. Reid Cherlin, a former aide to ex-president Barack Obama, called them “a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff”.
It is true that the briefings can be boring. Ida Tarbell wrote about those early briefings in 1898, noting that they were conducted by presidential secretary John Addison Porter around a table at 10pm. “They gather around Secretary Porter for a kind of family talk, he discussing with them whatever of the events of the day he thinks wise to discuss.” Then and now, no reporter would ever base any story solely on what was said in the briefing.
But it is still vital to a democracy that a representative of the president present himself every day. Everyone benefits when the government has to face that daily ordeal. It was at a White House briefing that the then press secretary Ron Ziegler on April 17, 1973, was forced to backtrack on months of Watergate evasions and declare his previous statements “inoperative”. It was at White House briefings that press secretaries for former president George W. Bush had to try to explain why no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And it was at White House briefings that Jay Carney was forced to explain the problems with the website.
* Myth No 2: Reporters needlessly cling to traditions
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas recently dismissed the media as one of the “entrenched bureaucracies... that are reluctant — even hostile — to change”. He lamented that the White House press corps was “in a twist” over the possibility that President Donald Trump might move reporters out of the White House, an idea the administration seems to have since abandoned. And it’s true that in the past, the White House Correspondents’ Association has fought certain changes, such as former president John F. Kennedy’s decision to televise his news conferences.
But today’s reporters have worked with administrations of both parties to find better ways — collaborating on travel schedules, cost-cutting measures and which charter flights reporters use. Contrary to what presidential aides have suggested, the correspondents’ association has not blocked access to any accredited reporters and has not kept them out of the briefing room. White House Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus seems to think the 49 assigned seats in the room are cast in stone and doled out to long-established media outlets. In fact, 20 of the 49 seats are held either by news organisations that didn’t exist when the seats were first assigned in 1981 or by organisations new to covering the White House. Those include Yahoo News, SiriusXM, Salem Radio Network, the Washington Examiner, Real Clear Politics, Bloomberg News, Fox News, BuzzFeed and Politico.
* Myth No 3: It’s Washington’s most glamorous beat
Merriman Smith, the most famous White House correspondent for four decades, from former president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, was often offered less-gruelling beats by his bosses at United Press International. He declined. Smith saw the beat as “glamorous and important” and the only one that “sated [his] competitive zeal”, according to a monograph about him. That perception hasn’t changed. Reporters still fight for the White House assignment, with its extensive foreign travel, frequent stories on Page One and all the airtime a TV correspondent could crave.
But there’s often nothing splendid about the work. Correspondents endure unexplained odours and recurring rodent infestations. My desk in the White House basement has suffered through frequent flooding. Then there are the hours spent at White House stakeouts in the rain, snow and heat, never certain if a visiting lawmaker will deign to come out. Or the nights spent in vans on pool duty (a tedious job in which reporters take turns recording the comings and goings for the rest of the press corps that couldn’t be on site).
* Myth No. 4: Reporters are always with the president, so he has no privacy
A few days after his win last November, Donald Trump went to dinner with his family and ditched the small pool of White House reporters at Trump Tower, causing journalists to wring their hands. Meanwhile, his supporters at Infowars accused the reporters of having a “hissy fit”, and cable TV was filled with Trump surrogates indignant that reporters, as they contended, wanted to be at the table along with Trump’s children.
The reaction reflected a misunderstanding of how a pool operates. Reporters are not asking to be at the table with family members. They are asking to know where a president is if he leaves the White House grounds. No one knows when a crisis will develop; no one knows when a motorcade will be in an accident; no one knows when a president will take ill; no one knows when an aide will whisper to the leader of the free world, as one did on September 11, 2001, that “America is under attack”. A pool is there to provide information to the public so there’s no confusion when a terrorist strikes or a president collapses.
* Myth No 5: Doesn’t matter where press quarters are
This month, Esquire reported that the new administration was looking for ways to evict the press from its West Wing offices. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity applauded, suggesting that it is “time to just throw them all out and start over”. Various administration officials said they would actually be doing the press a favour, freeing them of their cramped quarters and noting that they still would be on the 18-acre White House campus.
This sounds reassuring only if you don’t understand the importance of proximity to the White House press offices and the restrictions already slapped on correspondents. While they report throughout the White House campus before the administration of former president Ronald Reagan, today they can reach only the press offices. And tight space is never a lasting concern. These are the early days of a new presidency, but soon the novelty will wear off — it always does — and the financial realities of covering the White House will set in for news organisations. Where today you see reporters crammed in for the daily briefing, tomorrow you will see empty seats. And those who remain will write better, more accurate, more comprehensive stories in part because of the access they retain.
— Washington Post

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