Posted by: Karina of the Fallen Stars | July 19, 2009

Midterm Post – The Importance of the White House Press Corps

WHPC during the Truman Era

WHPC during the Truman Era

Deep within the lower floors of the West Wing, the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room has been the nest for White House journalists and correspondents since 1969. That year, Richard M. Nixon converted an indoor swimming pool into offices and newsrooms for members of the press. Ironically, the reporters that filled those seats would be the same reporters covering his demise in politics at the onset of the Watergate Scandal. Democracy, in this way, is a double-edged sword; it has the power to both shield and cut. As former President John F. Kennedy once summed up, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Indeed, a lot can be said about a nation’s government by simply looking at its newspapers and broadcast news. Are there reoccurring editorials in those pages, despite the harsh criticism of the country’s leaders? Perhaps instead, such editorials have been replaced by advertisements and blank pages? It is up to the American public to define democracy in the media, to decide whether this ideal is perpetuated or ignored.

Helen Thomas with John F. Kennedy

Helen Thomas with John F. Kennedy

The White House Press Correspondents have a responsibility to American democracy, more so than the average journalist. The link between the American people and the executive office is bridged by these corespondents.  Whether Woodrow Wilson was holding press conferences discussing foreign diplomacy or George W. Bush held briefings on the War in Iraq, the press was present in the White House reporting on these significant matters. It is the duty of the White House Press to uphold the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. “Freedom of the press” is more than a cliche, it encompasses the right to dissent, to critique and criticize, to expose the truth regardless of whose public image it may tarnish. In spite of the close contact that may result, the Press Corps works independently of the White House. Essentially, the Executive Office preserves democracy by opening the doors to the press. A totalitarian government would hesitate to allow reporters to objectively survey the government in such close proximity, least corruption be unmasked. Were they to open the doors, reports and briefing notes would be subject to censorship and review. Nonetheless, in the United States democracy allows for choice, its most powerful tenet, to shine through. Although all forty-eight press correspondents listen to the same briefing, the jurisdiction to report from a certain perspective or interpretation is entirely their own.

Bonus Army March, 1932

Bonus Army March, 1932

At times, the President may make certain decisions regarding the Press Corps that may affect democracy for better or worse. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy declared that he would not attend the annual White House Correspondents dinner unless the ban on women from attending was lifted. This strive towards equality in reporting led journalist Helen Thomas to become the first woman to attend the dinner that year. By contrast, Bill Clinton limited reporters’ access to the White House communication office by sealing off a corridor connected to the press room (Graber, 7th edition). Every move a president makes or even  contemplates is observed and/or recorded under the watchful eyes of the Press Corps. The pressures lie not to conform to any set standards, but rather to find an effective medium to connect with the audience. The press needs to find a way to accurately communicate their up close and personal experience to the public who would rarely, if ever, have such an opportunity in real life. In such a way, they help facilitate public interest, a feat best exemplified in the late 1920’s when economic turmoil had turned the once beloved Herbert Hoover into public enemy number one. The Press Corps were indeed the first witnesses to the Bonus Army protest, in which veteran soldiers protesting for a raised pension were hosed down with tear gas by the National Guard on the White House lawn. This move by Hoover had united the country in outrage as the press quickly decried the violence.

Richard M. Nixon giving a press conference in the newly renovated briefing room

Richard M. Nixon giving a press conference in the newly renovated briefing room

In a world where three out of four Americans believe that there is a definite bias in the media, the White House Press Corps is not without criticism from the public. In early winter of 2003, thirteen White House journalists accompanied George W. Bush on his trip to Iraq where he had Thanksgiving dinner with 600 U.S. soldiers. Some verbally attacked the journalists as “turning into a PR agency for the president“, thus creating an overly patriotic atmosphere in which having an objection to the war would have easily been dismissed and rebutted. Another criticism of the press involved its recent preoccupation with soft news. Ana Marie Cox of the Washington Post went so far as to say that America should be rid of the Press Corps because they have lost their objective foresight whilst perpetuating soft news headlines such as Bo, the first dog. Bloggers detracted members of the White House Press for attending President Obama’s off-the-record Fourth of July celebration. They claimed that the reporters violated ethics by attending a secretive informal gathering that fostered elitism by only inviting correspondents from major corporate-owned networks. Criticism of the White House Press Corps does not flaunt its shortcomings and imperfections. Rather, the criticism serves as a representational model for democracy, in which one could voice his/her objection or agreement and build up a community of similarly-minded individuals (i.e. in the blogosphere). A blogger, who is essentially an average every-day citizen, might be stating, “I do not agree with the way you report, this how I would do things differently…” This subtle backlash against the White House Press Corps can be considered feedback for the current model of democracy.

Jimmy Carter holding a briefing on the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis

Jimmy Carter holding a briefing on the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis

An important issue that was always faced the White House Press Corps is censorship. In 2006, the White House was accused of censoring comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert’s performance at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Colbert’s jokes, which rhetorically attacked the Bush Administration and mocked the Press Corps received no mention in either the New York Times or Washington Post. It was not until a leaked video of the performance started appearing on the internet that the public was made aware. Subsequently, a more conservative entertainer was hired for the 2007 dinner to avoid controversy. More recently, reporters Chip Reid and Helen Thomas voiced their concern to Press Secretary Gibbs in a briefing that a recent public forum was not as public as it appeared. Criticism on the pre-selection of questions and audience members led to claims that Gibbs was attempting to “control the press”. Thomas is no novice to this quote, in her 2006 novel Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corp and How It Has Failed the Public, she declares “To criticize the government’s failings was considered by many to be un-American in the face of conflict.” Thomas asserts that the press should be more aggressive in seeking the truthand standing up to politicians. She claims that their watchdog role is falling fast in the face of political correctness and patriotism. Thomas also boldly proclaimed in an interview that “not even Richard Nixon tried to control the press the way President Obama is trying to control the press.”, thereby alluding to the former’s “war with the media”that occurred years before Watergate shook the government. On an additional note, Thomas was a victim of censorship herself when the Bush Administration had moved her traditional seat in the briefing room from the front to the back.

Stephen Colbert lampoons George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner

Stephen Colbert lampoons George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner

In spite of its shortcomings, the White House Press Corps has been successful in upholding democracy in the modern world. Under the First Amendment, the Press Corps are not bound to seal their lips, eyes, and ears to the truth that White House reporting entails. In a government for the people, by the people the American public is just as much apart of this investigative role as the journalists and reporters themselves. The press relies on the public to be harvesters of their sowed work, there upon acting as a bridge between the American citizens and the Executive Office. Without this cohesion, the activities of the White House would become an unanswered enigma free to even the most preposterous of propaganda and speculation. Without the White House Press, how would the “average Joe” stay informed about the person he elected into office? The WHPC makes it its business to know and inform. The power of democracy lies within the power to chose freely. The White House Press Corps chooses the questions to pose to its political subjects, forming a basis for their work. The executive office then makes the conscious choice of forming a response. The American public, in turn, chooses which newspapers to read and which news broadcasts to view. They make their own interpretations based on their choice of news and can use outlets, such as blogs, to voice their opinions on political matters at hand. In conclusion, the White House Press Corps has lived up to its role in U.S. democracy. Despite challenges coming from the organizational media model, more so than the actual government itself, the members of the Press Corps continue to strive for a more democratic future that bridges the gap between citizen and leader. As Thomas Jefferson once stated, “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.”

Obama holding a press conference in late winter 2009

Obama holding a press conference in late winter 2009

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