President Obama hasn't held a single press conference since July, and when Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about it, Gibbs seemed dismissive, calling press conferences "an arbitrary Washington measure" of the media's access to the president. In that same interview, he also took a slap at questions from White House television reporters: "I know when somebody thinks they have a good question, because when I walk in they've already got their makeup on." He went on to single out Fox News and MSNBC for criticism, comparing them to "world-wide wrestling" on the issues.
The press isn't happy either. The list of grievances has grown beyond the lack of press conferences to include, among other things, the president recently giving the slip to the rotating pool of reporters who cover him when he leaves the White House, and the administration's hiring its own photographers and bloggers to relay news. The White House's October attempt to shut Fox News out of the pool has ruffled feathers, too.
Two weeks ago, the White House Correspondents Association requested a meeting with Gibbs to try to work things out. Ed Chen, the association's president and a Bloomberg News correspondent, told Politico: "Rarely have I sensed such a level of anger, which is wide and deep, among members over White House practices and attitude toward the press." It doesn't sound like Gibbs was very accommodating; at the meeting he told reporters, "This is the most transparent administration in the history of our country." Considering all the closed-door, back-room dealmaking by the administration on healthcare, that's a pretty amazing statement.
Gibbs can say something like that because the White House now has its own YouTube channel, so that viewers can go there directly and view unfiltered footage of events. The White House is also on Facebook, and Gibbs tweets regularly. Instead of providing regular access at press conferences, the White House chooses what news to release, when to release it, and where to release it. Sure, presidents have been doing that since FDR's "fireside chats" and Reagan's Oval Office addresses, but this White House seems to pride itself on using new media as no one has before. The result is unfiltered White House spin, no questions asked.
Gibbs correctly pointed out to Kurtz that White House correspondents have essentially become wire reporters, with breaking news going live all the time. But the problem is that now, with the 24-hour news cycle, somehow the seasoned analysis we used to hear from a Hugh Sidey or Helen Thomas is lost in the chaos. There's plenty of reaction and commentary in the blogosphere, but in bypassing the experienced journalists in the press room, a lot of context and historical perspective is lost. Most White House correspondents are top journalists in their field whose day now usually consists of sitting around waiting to be fed the news by the White House. They're frustrated and angry. And so is the White House.
There's an old rule in Washington: Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. And while people don't buy ink by the barrel anymore—these days I guess they buy bandwidth by the barrel—it's still a good rule. As Chuck Todd, the NBC White House correspondent, pointed out recently, when the White House picks fights with the press, it diminishes itself. Going after Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News may have been part of a political strategy to try to tie the Republican party to extremism, but it wasn't a good media strategy to go after specific reporters or commentators. It made the White House look as if it were "punching down," as Todd put it.
So here's an idea, which was first brought up last year by Ana Marie Cox, a liberal writer, but it's got across-the-board appeal with people who are fed up with the White House's arrogant attitude: Get rid of the White House press corps.
"Instead of heaping more telegenic reporters into a single White House beat, break up the work among the corps of plugged-in journalists," she suggested. If today's topic is healthcare reform, the Washington Post could send Ezra Klein, its whiz kid blogger whose coverage of the healthcare reform debate was widely followed. If it's the financial reform package, what if the Wall Street Journal sent Greg Zuckerman, whose explanations of the incredibly complicated Goldman Sachs investigation have been clear, concise, and understandable? When the first lady holds a summit on obesity, NBC could send Dr. Nancy Snyderman, its health correspondent who knows that the obesity epidemic poses a medical crisis for children, rather than an opportunity to talk about White House vegetable gardens.