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March 10, 2005

To Liberate From the White House the White House Press

Dan Weintraub, who covers politics at the Sacramento Bee, wants "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."

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.Garrett Graff, first blogger at the White House briefing.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post responded to me Tuesday in his Media Notes column, following my criticisms of him in De-Certifying the Press, posted March 4. This was his best moment:

Why do we need the administration to be nice to us, or to somehow validate our existence? Journalists need to do their jobs regardless of the roadblocks and land mines placed by the White House. And the real reporting doesn’t take place in the briefing room, regardless of who’s accredited, or in the televised news conferences, which have become theater. It takes place behind the scenes, where journalists cultivate sources not just in the administration but on the Hill and among interest groups, to break news the White House doesn’t want broken. (Watergate, you may recall, was not broken by White House beat reporters.) And it takes place when reporters have the courage to say that what the president said yesterday is at odds with reality or with his own record.

Amen. I think he’s right about all of that. Kurtz to PressThink: “I don’t think we disagree on very much.” For example:

Okay, so he’s not at de-certify yet. Kurtz thinks real reporting on the White House doesn’t come from reporters on the surreal White House beat. The journalism part—as against the “theatre” of it—is in the cultivation of sources beyond the press operation entirely. That is the only way to “break news the White House doesn’t want broken.”

Notice this means that the White House press corps is kind of superfulous, doing what it’s currently doing. Hold that thought until later.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, had a similar view in a recent comment thread at PressThink. Lovelady—formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Wall Street Journal—said that in 40 years in the business he couldn’t recall a single instance where the White House press corps (“defined as the guys ‘n dolls who show up for the daily kabuki theater staged by McClellan or any of his predecessors”) broke a major story. The whole thing has become absurd, he feels.

The assignment is a sure road to four years of mind-numbing stenography, which is not a role any of those present ever had in mind when they went into the craft in the first place. The whole elaborate and pointless minuet ceased to be useful decades ago; what no one has come up with is a satisfactory replacement that might actually produce …… news !

Instead, we get frustrated reporters full of bluster and trying to appear macho by asking “questions” more appropriate for a prosecutor grilling a defendant on the witness stand — knowing full well the query will be danced around, or answered with a robot-like reiteration of a talking point. (Link.)

“I wish there were a point to it,” said Lovelady. “But for a long time there hasn’t been.” I asked him if had given up on the concept: White House correspondent. He said no, but he had given up on the current arrangement, the ceremony of no information. “Don’t expect me to be ahead of you on puzzling out this conundrum, because I’m not,” he added.


Just how staggeringly empty the beat has been during the Bush era came through in an online chat with Dan Froomkin, White House Briefing columnist for the Washintgton Post. A Post reader said: “I’m interested in the current administration’s diversionary phrases, in talking with the press,” as in, “our views…are very well known.”

Dan Froomkin: Those aren’t diversionary phrases. Those are the meaningless words padding the diversionary phrases that punctuate the hoary soundbytes from the approved phrasebook that obfuscate the lack of any substantial response to our questions.

For an example, click here and scroll down to See What You’ve Been Missing. Froomkin agrees with Lovelady on the pointlessness of sticking around for endless repetition of a “line.”

What the press corps needs to do — and I am wracking my brain on some way to usefully add to the current raging discourse on this very issue — is dramatically change the current paradigm, which they have tacitly accepted, and which is that they don’t get answers — from Scott, or anyone else in the White House.

One possible solution, which I have repeatedly suggested, is that when they don’t get answers, they should report that they didn’t get answers.

Good idea. And now we see the significance of this episode during the election campaign, and also what was made of it in the ongoing campaign to discredit the press. Call it a marker, showing what to expect if Froomkin’s “possible solution” (a pretty modest step) were ever followed.

He says he is thinking (“wracking” his mind) about what would bring a more dramatic change to the situation. Suggestion for Dan: A simple first step in changing the world is to re-describe it. A columnist (or blogger) is well suited for that.

Dan Weintraub, the political columnist (and blogger) who writes California Insider for the Sacramento Bee, has one way of changing the dynamic. He explained it in the same comment thread a few days ago.

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.

In place of a White House presence, Weintraub recommends a simple procedure to ensure fairness, and a voice for the Administration if it chooses that option. “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,” he said. If the White House does not comment, “so be it.”

I like this idea. It has simplicity on its side. When being inside gets you nowhere, you have nothing to lose by developing a more “outside” approach to the beat. If the White House is thinking post-press, (a description I believe accurate) then the press room becomes a space the Administration has already vacated. And that is the sound you hear when Scott McClellan steps to the podium. Instead of venting about the awfulness of the briefing, recognize that the decision to empty it out was made a while ago. Bush already left the marriage.

In an outside beat, you still try to find out what’s going on with the Bush Administration; you stay with the story. The title, White House Correspondent, does not change. But you abandon hope of getting there the inside way. Instead, you interview “around” the White House, which means investing primarily in other sources who have parts of the puzzle. Most especially this means sources in Congress. Sometimes the agencies. Sometimes the opposition. Sometimes it is the American people who are the outside source because they always have parts of the puzzle.

Done well, this approach can change the balance of power, Weintraub believes. The result would be Scott McClellan and aides “begging reporters back in to converse with them so that their side of the story could be told more fully.”

Far fetched? Well, it’s the same method Bob Woodward of the Washington Post uses when he writes those blockbuster books giving us the inside account of an Administration under the gun of real events. (And he’s done it with the current group.) People tend to cooperate with Woodward, the most famous reporter of his generation, because they don’t want to be left out of his best-selling version. Thus he has both vanity and fear working for him, in addition to a publishing formula that sells books.

Although he doesn’t put it this way, Weintraub knows the Woodward method is founded on an insight: threaten to write the definitive account and the people who know will talk to you, hoping to define your account. A press corps superfulous inside the White House could become vital again by developing an outside game: assemble the definitive account and then work your way “in.” It is a method well known in investigative reporting.

It would be fascinating to be in the room when the press tribe votes to remain inside the White House, or try an outside approach. Who would come down for stasis? Who would stand up for change?

Bill Keller, top editor at the New York Times, told Nick Lemann of the New Yorker that methods well known have not been entirely absent under George W. Bush:

“During the campaign, and particularly when things looked close, political strategists for the Republican Party and all of the various allied constituencies did not bypass the ‘establishment’ press,” Keller said. “They sought us out to defend their own causes and often to attempt to plant dirt on the opposition.” The phrase, particularly when things looked close, reminds us that an effective opposition makes the press more effective in covering politics. Weak opposition makes it easier to subvert the press.

Craig Crawford, columnist for Congressional Quarterly, goes a little further than Howard Kurtz did: “The Bush White House has virtually no respect for the media’s traditional role.”

Agreed. And yet there is liberation possible if correspondents stay on the beat but vacate the White House press room. (See Inside the Veal Pen.) From the Bush side, who really cares if some greedy special interest no longer comes ‘round for a twice-daily game of gotcha? I should think both sides quite happy with a new arrangement.

They really ought to start discussing trial separation.

Only one thing stands in the way, and it’s material for another post. And that is the “theatre” of the present arrangement. It serves many interests who do not want to see it disappear overnight. Fishbowl DC’s Garrett Graff caught some of this after he finally got his credentials and attended the briefing as a blogger. “The walk up the drive to the West Wing takes one right up by where the networks and cable channels do their stand-ups many times a day.”

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links.

David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times takes on the de-certification argument and my defense of it. Is Bush really implementing a full-court press on media? His answer is no. But the argument is “one of the most interesting and provocative (and paranoid) of those espoused in recent weeks.”

In a long investigative piece, the New York Times reports on video propaganda produced by the Bush Administration making it into the news (March 13). I wrote about this a year ago. See PressThink, Why Karen Ryan Deserved What She Got.

If you’re interested in this story, which I call de-certifying the press, a must read (for Friday March 10) is Dan Froomkin, Hughes’s Return Is a Blow for Rove. It may be that the “hostile” formation in the press room is a result of Rove Hegemony, and Hughes, a “communication” specialist, will change that. Froomkin’s backgrounder explains all of it.

For the full exchange see Rosen (Feb. 25), then Kurtz (March 3), then Rosen(March 4), then Kurtz (March 8), then today’s post (Rosen, March 10).

Do read the Wall Street Journal on “pool reports,” which used to circulate only among the White House correspondents, now becoming widely-distributed by e-mail and changing tenor. A transparency story. Alas, the “club” of correspondents is not a club if it can’t control some information.

Froomkin in his Briefing (March 9):

Here and there, you can hear a new melody emerging in the press coverage of President Bush, and it goes something like this: Bush is a historic figure, the Ronald Reagan of the Middle East, whose heroic invasion of Iraq is a historic turning point for worldwide democracy tantamount to the fall of Berlin Wall.

In comments, learn how a PressThink reader solves the “empty briefing” problem using Blackberry pagers, the Web, and color-coded pie charts. Clever!

Forget “who is a journalist,” Dave Pell wants to know: Who is a Blogger? Is Rosen a blogger? “Yeah, he has a blog, but his site is hosted by his employers at NYU. Is that the same as if he had his own separate brand?” No, it isn’t.

Fishbowl DC was there, In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press: “We certainly heard Rosen’s point in the frustration in the voices of reporters at the gaggle and briefing this week. They’re tired of the obsfucation game, but until a better alternative can be created, they’re stuck with it.”

Jeff Gannon doesn’t read well, but he is funny. It’s not an act; the humor is part of the man. Here’s what he wrote at his site about this post: “Jay Rosen at PressThink criticizes the White House press corps for not asking more evocative questions.” (I didn’t.) “Perhaps the treatment I got for doing just that is the reason they don’t.” (See what I mean? Funny.)

More from Dan Froomkin’s lively chat with Post readers, March 9:

Gaithersburg, Md.: Has anyone ever tried to ask McLellan as obtuse, obfuscatory and non-substantive a question as the resposes he provides? (Feed him his own dog food, no offense to dog food mfrs.)

Something like, “Scott, to follow up on your previous answer, the president’s views being well known, and understanding that we are working together with our allies on a number of these fronts, can we say that it is finally time to put aside partisan differences, take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and, in conclusion, would that be the administrations stance on this and some other issues, tangential nonetheless, as a matter of policy or in practical terms?”

How about a whole briefing of such questions?

Dan Froomkin: Get a daypass, pal.

I was on CNN’s Newsnight with Aaron Brown to discuss Dan Rather’s final night in the anchor’s chair (March 9). Transcript here.

Reading A1 (March 2): “The professionalization of journalism, the elevation of the press into an independent actor outside-but-not-outside the state, a Fourth Estate, is a defining feature of the post-World War II American governing consensus.”

Correct. And so the clarifying question to ask about George W. Bush right now is whether he’s in inside or outside that consensus. You know my view. He and his White House are well outside it, and therefore they are making history. They are innovators. They deserve credit for demonstrating a different way exists. De-certify and replace. Eliminate the independent interlocutor’s role as a standard part of the Presidency.

They’re three-quarters of the way there, in my opinion.

Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Globe did an overview of the de-certification story. He got the official line from the White House on discrediting and marginalizing the press. (Good work, Mark.) An email from press secretary Scott McClellan to the Globe says:

”The President’s every move and every decision is closely monitored and constantly covered by the national media,” he wrote. ”The idea that you can ‘circumvent’ the national media is somewhat absurd. He recognizes the important role the national media plays in keeping the American people informed about the decisions being made in Washington, and it is a way for us to get our message out about the President’s agenda.”

In other words, there’s no story.

It needed to be said and Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, said it: Journalists, if you’re uncomfortable with the clamor on the Net, you’re uncomfortable with democracy. Go, Jake… Who Is a Journalist? Anybody who wants to be.

Insitutionalized journalists argue that bloggers don’t do conventional reporting, aren’t accurate, aren’t responsible, or aren’t paid—and hence are not genuine reporters. They fret that the current influx of amateurs will undermine professional standards or that seasoned professionals will be unfairly brought down by an electronic lynch mob, as some posit that Dan Rather of CBS and Eason Jordan of CNN were.

Disregard all such self-interested whining. The breakdown of what once were formidable barriers to entry in the field of journalism is good news for democracy as a whole and for the press itself. The great cacophony of voices in the blogosphere means that more views are being represented, that more subjects are being examined in detail, and that more sunlight shines into institutions of all kinds. Thousands of bloggers ranting from their soapboxes mean that our political culture encompasses bracing debate about everything people disagree about. If you don’t like this raucous clamor emanating from cyberspace, you’re not really comfortable with democracy.

American Prospect presents Blogged Down. “Pseudo-journalistic Web sites are another way conservatives get around ‘the filter’ of mainstream media.”

Not only are most bloggers not journalists; increasingly they are also partisan operatives whose agendas are as ideological as they come. Using the cover of anonymity (many bloggers use pseudonyms), the cacophony of the relatively new medium, and the easily inflamed passions of the Web, these partisan political operatives are becoming experts at stirring up hornets’ nests of angry e-mails to editors, mounting campaigns to force advertisers to pull out of news shows, and, most disturbingly, spreading outright false information. The irony is that, at the same time this is happening, many in the mainstream media have decided it’s finally time to take bloggers seriously.

Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The stand-alone journalists are here, and they are digging out facts and leading crusades. They are also printing gossip and distorting facts — but hey, so are we. It is about time that all the media folks began working together for the common good, defending reporters and bloggers in trouble and, by the way, outing our own when they mess up.

Stuffiest column yet about blogs by a traditional journalist. Simon Jenkins in the Times of London. The Daily Ablution (from the pen of Scott Burgess in London) takes Jenkins apart.

These Old Media Guy dumps on bloggers, value added zero columns are basically comedy writing now. Why shouldn’t the Brits pick up the form? Welcome, Times of London. The Jenkins entry we rate a 3.5, which is not bad for a beginner. See Harry if you’re curious about a Brit blogger.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 10, 2005 12:39 AM