On Saturday, the White House press corps and the political elite they cover will gather together for the White House correspondents dinner, commonly called “nerd prom.” It’s a glamorous night that gets endless coverage, provided to a nation that largely could care less, but the same could be said about this White House and the press corps, too. Two stories highlight the role of the press in the Obama Era of Transparency, and together it paints an unpleasant picture.
First, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi profiles Lesley Clark, a reporter for McClatchy who has covered President Obama for years, and who got to ask him one question. That’s it — just one:
Clark has been on the White House beat for three years for the McClatchy newspaper chain, and during that time, she’s been able to ask the president a direct question just once. It was in July 2011, and Obama was in a rare period of direct engagement with the media, appearing almost weekly to pressure Congress into lifting the federal debt ceiling. She asked him whether the administration was enlisting business leaders to lobby Republicans. She even got in a follow-up question about “contingency plans” if a deal couldn’t be reached.
That opportunity hasn’t happened since.
Despite spending her workdays a few dozen feet from the West Wing and the first family’s residence, Clark has been to the Oval Office only three times — on each occasion as part of the press “pool” that stands in for the news media at large. She’s never been past the first floor of the main building. She’s not sure Obama knows her name.
Ask Clark how she feels about her work, and she’ll give you a surprising answer: a bit conflicted.
Conflicted? Journalists spend years working to get on the White House beat (Clark did); they follow the president around the world (she just returned from covering Obama’s trip to Asia) and show off their photos of riding on Air Force One on social media (guilty, says Clark). They’re covering the biggest issues of the day around the most famous and powerful man on the planet.
Yes, says Clark, “it’s pretty awesome to cover a beat that affects people around the world and the U.S., and to witness history in the making.” Yet, she adds quickly, “there’s a disconnect to be covering something and to rarely — if ever, lately — get the opportunity to pose questions to the person you’re covering.”
Reading the rest of the article, we find that Clark doesn’t even get to ask Jay Carney questions, either. One can’t blame her for being conflicted in that context. And when the briefings end, the McClatchy reporter — working for a significant wire service, published in newspapers across the country — has to watch as favored reporters get ushered into private meetings with administration officials. But hardly anyone gets time with Obama himself, whether that’s Clark or anyone else in the gaggle.
For transparency, Clark compares it to one of her previous beats in Florida:
Compared with those beats, Clark sometimes thinks that covering the White House is a little like another one she covered when she worked in Orlando: the Walt Disney Co.’s sprawling theme parks. “They were so locked down, so opaque,” she says.
That isn’t to say that a reporter can’t get noticed by the White House, though. Olivier Knox of Yahoo News offers a look at how the Obama administration deals with reporters on social media — and how a reporter may find himself on the receiving end of a “rocket” for tweeting anything critical:
For the Obama White House, tweets from reporters are a kind of early warning system. It’s up to Jessica Allen, 24, to sound the alarm.
Allen, whose official title is “media monitor,” tracks journalists’ tweets and flags them in mass emails that land in the in-boxes of more than 80 Obama aides, including chief of staff Denis McDonough, White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, press secretary Jay Carney and senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
The result? Reporters who regularly cover Obama have become familiar with seemingly out-of-the-blue emails or telephone calls from officials taking issue with their tweets — often thoughtfully and constructively, sometimes with obscenity-laced yelps of outrage.
For the most part, they won’t engage that way on Twitter itself … not unless the White House finds a political advantage in beating up the reporter:
Interestingly, the White House doesn’t often respond to reporter tweets on Twitter, preferring instead to pick up the phone or send an off-the-record email — private, one-on-one communications.
Democratic officials said the White House’s informal guidelines call for staffers to jump in on Twitter itself in three circumstances: 1) If a Republican official is involved in the exchange, 2) if the White House wants to amplify a point it considers beneficial and 3) if it sees a confrontation with a reporter as politically useful and wants to escalate it.
Ron Fournier has advice for those wanting to end the practice of “rockets”:
WH reporters: Want to stop getting "rockets"? Remind WH aides that everything they write is on the record. Publish their rants.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) May 1, 2014
Politico surveyed the reporters themselves to get an idea of what they think of the job, and turned it into a graphics nightmare that nonetheless is interesting to peruse. About half declined to disclose their salary range, but half of the rest make between $100K-200K. Nearly six out of ten are between 41-60 years of age, and a large majority have been working as a journalist for more than 20 years. Over half haven’t talked with a White House official except for those in the communications office in the past week, and half say that an Obama official has lied to them. A plurality of 42% think this is the “most secretive White House” ever, while only 20% disagree with that assessment.
When Obama claims his to be the “most transparent administration in history,” ABC’s Ann Compton retorts, “This WH means it is putting its own version of pictures, video and readouts on its own website.”
This weekend, the White House and political elite will treat these journalists with more courtesy. The question will be — as it always is — why the White House press corps plays along.