Tempest in a teapot, or the beginning of a perfect storm?
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's first media briefing in the West Wing yesterday—packed with 150 journalists— was marked by a donnybrook with TV correspondents over access to President Obama.
Gibbs, who can be sharp-tongued and antagonistic, managed to remain genial throughout his 49-minute encounter, even when the questions turned prickly. But he found himself in the middle of a media furor almost as soon as he stepped up to the podium.
Amid dealing with queries about the economy, Iraq, Guantánamo, and other big issues, he seemed thrown off script by the repeated and pointed questions about the White House's decision not to allow any TV correspondents and cameras into the do-over swearing-in of Obama as president. At the inauguration on Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts led Obama in an incorrect recitation of the oath, departing from the form specified by the Constitution. Rather than risk lawsuits or challenges to Obama's legitimacy, White House counsel Greg Craig recommended a do-over, which was accomplished Wednesday night in the Map Room of the White House. "This was done out of an abundance of caution," Gibbs explained.
But White House wranglers allowed only a total of four wire service and print journalists into the room, along with a handful of administration staffers and an official White House photographer. And that set off an uproar among the TV folks. The fact that the event was on the record was not nearly as important to the TV honchos as the fact that television cameras weren't there.
A related issue was the refusal of the White House to allow news photographers to record the new president's first hours in the Oval Office. Instead, it released pictures by official White House photographers. That wasn't enough for the press corps regulars, who see the decision as a setback in their constant demands for access.
At his briefing, Gibbs defended the level of media access to the swearing-in. "We think it was done in a way that was up front and transparent," Gibbs said.
But it's clear that his battle with the media has begun.
Overall, veterans of past presidential start-ups say Gibbs and his communications team aren't as sure-footed as they were during the campaign. "This is like moving up from triple-A to the major leagues," says a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. The former adviser added that it's much easier to control a message in a campaign than it is in the White House, where developments are likely to burst into the news at any moment and the White House is expected to react instantly.
The media fuss was reminiscent of what happened during the first hours of Bill Clinton's presidency in January 1993 when Clinton's handlers, filled with the hubris of a winning campaign, shut off media access to the "upper press office," where the press secretary's office is located. The media raised a furor, which stymied the new administration's effort to talk about Clinton's domestic and foreign policy agenda. The Clinton team quickly backed down and reopened the cloistered space.
A postscript: Perhaps realizing that his press secretary needed a boost, President Obama made a surprise appearance in the briefing room last evening. He told the scores of reporters and photographers who crowded around him that he thought Gibbs had done a fine job.
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