Posted by: evanmcarlson | July 20, 2009

Midterm: Question 3, The White House Press Corps

The White House is a giant fishbowl. Every day – and every hour now, thanks to 24 hour cable news – the actions of the President are scrutinized. Yet, the waters are muddied by all that takes place inside. Those of us looking into this fishbowl do not know what is going on inside. Fortunately, we can send people inside the murky waters to find out what is happening: the White House Press Corps.

Once inside the fishbowl, the actions of the press corps should be scrutinized as carefully as those of the president. How does being on the inside impact their reporting? Are they objectively providing the public with important information?

The White House Press Corps is a group of the most well respected men and women in their industry. The reason for this is, at least partly, to help ease our fears regarding the questions posed above. The quality of the journalists sent to cover the White House is crucial because they represent such an integral part of our democracy. Many who have had the honor of working the White House beat have gone on to become leaders in the world of journalism. They include Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer, to name a few.

They work to provide the public with a firsthand account of what takes place every day inside the White House. They help the public see through the spin and try to find out what direction the White House is trying to take the country in and what is going on behind the scenes in order to make that happen.

Graber says, “The White House press secretary meets almost daily with the White House Press Corps to make announcements and take questions. These briefings provide reporters with the president’s interpretation of the events of the day.”

The reporters then try to provide the public the information they need to make informed decisions when they head to the polls on Election Day. However, the operative word in that sentence is “try.”

Unfortunately, the system is not perfect. Over the years we have seen Presidents manipulate the press, we have seen journalists fail to live up to their responsibilities and we hear people from both the left and the right argue that the White House Press Corps is in the pocket of the president.

Graber also notes that the reporters will cast the president’s interpretation of events into their own perspective to fit their own goals. We have seen this editorializing throughout history from, the exaggerations of the Boston Massacre, through the partisan press of the early 19th century, to a similarly partisan press today.

It is interesting to look back on how Presidents have handled the White House Press Corps over the years. One tactic is to bypass the press. This method employs the use of speeches on television or the radio to speak directly with the American people and dodge the editorial pen of the media. Furthermore, this tactic prevents them from providing the public with the first impression of the given policy that the president is trying to promote. This is a huge advantage for the president.

A great example of this was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the fireside chat to speak directly to American families sitting together around their radio.

Roosevelt came to the White House in the midst of the great depression. One in four Americans were out of work and in some cities unemployment rose well over 50 percent. There was a pervasive negativity that seemed to blanket the country and affected everybody including journalists.

Roosevelt, however, had a clear message to deliver to the American people and he used his fireside chats to deliver it without any editorial input from the media. Rather than provide newspapers and radio stations to report only excerpts from his speeches, to add their opinion, or otherwise put their own stamp on his words, Roosevelt became the first president to make a concerted effort to speak directly to the American people.

Roosevelt saw radio for what it was: an immensely powerful tool for reaching people in every corner of the country. He used radio to get his message out to the country and to rally support for his policies like the “New Deal,” “Court Packing,” and America’s entry into World War II.

Bypassing the White House Press Corps, and editors across the country, was an incredibly effective move for the president. Following President Roosevelt’s death, Carl Carmer, one of the millions of Americans who tuned in to hear the fireside chats said this:

I never saw him – but I knew him. Can you have forgotten how, with his voice, he came into our house, the President of these United States, calling us friends…

It is for this reason that every president since made a weekly radio address. Rather than allow the press to provide their own perspective as Graber describes, they send their message out directly to the American people. Today, we see the next step as President Obama harnesses the power of the internet to pass his message directly on to even more Americans.

Another tactic used by Presidents, both past and present, is to marginalize reporters who are not kind in their reporting. This is particularly effective as the primary objective of the White House Press Corps is to provide news firsthand from the administration. If a reporter fails to provide that news, they could lose their job.

Graber notes that both Presidents Nixon and Reagan effectively employed this technique. Nixon and Reagan would freeze out reporters by refusing to speak with them. Although a reporter may be able to garner a certain amount of information from the press briefings, it is not the same thing as speaking with the president himself. Nixon and Reagan would also indirectly shun reporters by instructing their staff, major agencies and departments to also refuse interviews effectively blocking the reporter out.

“Reporters’ eagerness to get news firsthand gives the president a tremendous advantage in influencing the substance and the spin of a news story,” Graber says.

Shunning a reporter is even more serious however, when the same denied interview requested by said reporter is granted to another reporter from a competing organization. The Los Angeles Times published a story regarding how rarely President Obama speaks to reporters from FOX News. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made itself very accessible to other networks like NBC and ABC.

Another way in which reporters are marginalized is by being painted negatively by the administration. In other words, the press secretary may still call on a reporter, but the reporter would be treated as hostile. Therefore, if a reporter were to provide a negative perspective on a story regarding the president, the public would treat the article with suspicion and question whether it is simply a hit job from a reporter with a vendetta.

During the Bush administration David Gregory of NBC was painted as a Democratic hit man working for an organization that promoted a liberal agenda. In September of 2006, then White House Press Secretary Tony Snow dismissed a question from Gregory saying that the NBC reporter had essentially argued “the Democratic point of view.”

What followed was a heated argument in which Gregory attempted to defend his journalistic integrity and make Snow retract his characterization. In spite of this, Gregory was defined by conservatives after this exchange and others as being “angry,” “partisan,” “grouchy,” and “ignorant.”

This tactic hits a news network where it really hurts: in its ratings. Ratings equate to advertising dollars. By allowing greater access to competing organizations, the Obama administration is drawing viewers away from the FOX News channel. While, FOX News may still have the best ratings out of the news networks, the Obama administration provided both NBC and ABC with ratings boosts and that made the networks a lot of money. Furthermore, when the administration and other conservatives marginalized David Gregory, they also hurt the networks he worked for: NBC and its sister MSNBC.

On the other hand, the president and his administration are not wholly responsible when the White House Press Corps fails to live up to our expectations. As a society, we require the news media to provide us with the information to help us determine whether the president is leading the country in the right direction. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that it is the news media that fails to live up to our expectations of them.

A recent example of this was the failure of the White House Press Corps to adequately challenge former President Bush’s assertions regarding the necessity to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Only in 2004, after the war started, did the White House Press Corps challenge the President.

According to the Christian Science Monitor’s Tom Regan, some experts were saying the US media was far too sycophantic in their coverage of the Bush administration’s positions on Iraq, and issues like weapons of mass destruction.

These critiques were highlighted in an editorial by Michael Mass, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. He notes that in 2004 US news organizations rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq, citing articles by The Washington Post, The Wall Stree Journal, Time and more. However, he also asks this question of his peers:

Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change—when, in short, it might have made a difference?

Even former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan felt that the press corps had been too deferential in their treatment of the administration when it came to questioning whether the war in Iraq was justified.

The full impact of the White House Press Corps’ failures to determine the legitimacy of the president’s assertions is yet to be seen fully as the war in Iraq continues today, six and a half years after the invasion of Iraq. However, what we do know is that the US military has suffered over 4,000 deaths, over 31,000 casualties, and the estimated number of civilian deaths is approximately 100,000.

While it is not entirely fair to hold the media responsible for what has happened in Iraq, the White House Press Corps could have done more to challenge the administration and further the public debate about whether the war was necessary.

In spite of these short-comings, the White House Press Corps remains an invaluable part of our democracy. They have certainly had failures, but remain the front line of the fourth estate. As mentioned earlier, we require the news media to provide us with the information to help us determine whether the president is leading the country in the right direction. It is important that we should not wait for the media to tell us whether the president is doing a good job. They are the first filter through which we separate fact from spin. The danger lies in allowing them to be our only filter.

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