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March 6, 2005

Instead of the White House Press, You Envision What?

Play the discredited and de-certified themes out. If we fired the White House press and told them to seek other employment, what then?

The previous comment thread grew to well over 100, so it’s time to close that one and start anew. It might be worthwhile to back away from the rights and wrongs of Bush and the press circa 2004-5, about which there is such hot dispute, and ask another question, a weekender:

Hit the comment button at any time…

But first: If someone asked me, do you recommend the kind of press you have in your capital, the Washington press? I would probably say no, not anymore. I think it has failed to evolve with the country and the times, although many talented people with strong professional values have passed through it, and great work has been done.

It is not my view that the press we have did a fair job covering the White House during my watch—roughly twenty years of professional observation—and that includes Bush 43.

Nor is the political press we have today necessarily a good model for the one we need down the road.

I don’t think the White House press corps, as currently constituted, is a fair representation of this country, either. (I’m not sure anyone does think so, do you?)

Still I defend the place for a free and inquisitive press in the White House as a permanent resident. That room is a very important room, as are its counterparts at the State Department, the Pentagon, and other places. I think it’s important to keep the interlocutor going while the institution changes, as I believe it must, and will.

The country loses when the President is not regularly and sharply questioned; and a daily session with reporters is part of good government. There is no law that specifies who it must be. But the presidency itself is diminished without a interlocutor capable of challenging the President and getting better explanations, an answer to what’s on people’s minds.

When the White House invited the press in to make a home on the grounds (1902, Theodore Roosevelt) it was part of how the presidency started its symbolic ascent over Congress.

In the 19th century Congress had dominated national politics. The president was a man little known in the country-at-large. Although people knew who held the office, they often did not know what he looked like. His speeches were very likely to be known only to the people who heard them.

But in the twentieth century the greater share of power tilted toward the White House. Newspaper correspondents were quite involved in enlarging the cultural space the President inhabited, and elevating his stature. Of course broadcasting hugely favored the President, who could come into every home. Congress then became the abstraction. During the previous century, it was the other way around.

By concentrating where it did, and making the President himself, his every move, the object of attention (with the post-1963 “body watch,” obsessive attention) there is no doubt the modern press helped to create the office George W. Bush holds, including the hold it has on public attention, and the parts of it that are imperial, glamorous, mythic.

But maybe journalism in the symbolic heart of the presidency is over. Some say so.

I felt there was one great moment in Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry’s satire piece. (Watch here.) Looking fake eager, Rob grabs his reporter’s notebook and says “let’s get started!” Then he tosses his pencil and notebook into the air behind him, and walks straight into New Journalism.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

If you haven’t been following Garrett Graff’s adventures as a blogger trying to get a day pass to the White House gaggle and briefing, then you should be. His report from today, when he finally got in, is well worth it:

We’d been warned by a regular White House correspondent over the weekend that the “zoo” of the briefing would likely leave us knowing less and being more confused than when went in. Having sat through it now, we have to agree. Watching it on television doesn’t quite do justice to the uselessness of many of the exchanges back and forth, nor the intensity of Scott McClellan’s withering gaze nor the frustration boiling up in the reporters’ voices as they butt their heads up against a rhetoric wall.

Dan Weintraub, political columnist and blogger for the Sacramento Bee, in comments:

I think the alternative would be an aggressive, curious and analytical press corps, based anywhere (including cyberspace), fact-checking the snot out of the White House and writing critically about the president’s statements, proposals and actions, and those of his administration, in both daily coverage and investigative reporting. For each story, reporters might place one call to the press office if they chose, explaining what they were inquiring about, and then move on. If the WH chose not to comment, so be it.

Blogger Tim Schmoyer (Sisyphus) responds to this post with Do you know what you want, instead?

“Journalism as lecture” is de-certifying the press. Journalists should not be “lecturing”, and they do.

When members of the White House press corps “lecture” the White House, which their “questions” sometimes seem to, they are de-certifying themselves as interlocutors and creating noise.

He has useful thoughts on alternatives to the current White House press corps. So check it out.

Weldon Berger of BTC News says in comments:

I want reporters who understand both their sources and their audiences as well as the White House understands the reporters and their audiences. I want reporters who don’t sit around thinking their readers are rubes at the same moment the White House is playing the reporters for rubes for the benefit of the readers…

Extra: BTC News will soon have White House access. “Our White House correspondent is your White House correspondent.”

In comments, Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, talks about the White House beat: “any reporter worth his salt avoids this assignment”… “a sure road to four years of mind-numbing stenography.”

Ed Cone’s column for the Greensboro News-Record, When the news is literally the party line.

One big difference between the old Soviet Union and the land of the First Amendment is that the party-line press cannot exist here in a vacuum. Serious reporters, working for organizations or as independents, are able to expose scripted news and the agenda behind it. And with increased transparency into the news-making process a big promise of the new media, that process should only intensify. Over time, that ought to lessen the credibility of the scripters, but it won’t stop them from trying to manipulate the news.

Eternal vigilance being the price of liberty, informed skepticism toward government-issue news is an ongoing obligation of Americans.

Declan McCullagh of CNet: The coming crackdown on blogging:

Bradley Smith says that the freewheeling days of political blogging and online punditry are over. In just a few months, he warns, bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign’s Web site…. Smith should know. He’s one of the six commissioners at the Federal Election Commission, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet.

Dan Gillmor, The Gathering Storms Over Speech, on the court cases involving bloggers and other threats:

We’re moving toward a system under which only the folks who are deemed to be professionals will be granted the status of journalists, and thereby more rights than the rest of us. This is pernicious in every way.

Mass media journalists and their bosses should be leading the fight against what’s happening to bloggers. I fear they won’t, because old media typically refuses to defend the rights of new entrants until the threats against the new folks directly threaten everyone.

Via Winds of Change comes word of, a new site where you can find links to news about the U.S. written outside the U.S., much of it originally in other languages and translated by WatchingAmerica.

“Make a comfortable living, then make a difference.” Craig Newmark of Craig’s List interviewed by the San Jose Mercury News:

Q Why are you pushing citizen journalism on the Net?

A Mostly as a consumer of news, I’ve learned that there’s too much important stuff which isn’t printed, or which is distorted on the way out, the best example being news out of the White House. We need to fix it.

We, meaning the public, need to evolve a trusted institution with lots of fact-checking that we can trust, and that we can prove does provide honest news.

(It would include) both professional and amateur journalists working together along with institutions like

The best successful model so far is OhmyNews out of Korea.

Q What role do you see yourself playing in this emerging area?

A I want to help other people do the real work. I’m no newsman, I’m not much of a businessman. I’m just one persistent nerd.

Read Susan Mernit on “why there are more supplies of particular types of stories created than the public actually wants to buy. And that means that newspapers end up with products they can’t sell, not in the form they are offering them.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 6, 2005 12:45 AM