Memo to the White House Press Corps: Save Your Outrage
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Wait for something truly egregious before freaking out.
Jennifer Loven is a former chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press. She is now a managing director at the Glover Park Group in Washington.
The freak-out must end. America may have a president who prides himself on warring with reporters, and there’s been plenty of chatter about “alternative facts.” But let’s review the things that are not at all new from presidents past and present in dealing with the press:
Doling out falsehoods, whether on Day 1 or Day 101. From the Bush White House’s unqualified assertions of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and claims that no one could have predicted Hurricane Katrina’s damage to the Obama White House’s insistence that no special-project earmarks lurked in a 2009 economic stimulus package — all one needs is a quick search on highly regarded fact-check sites such as PolitiFact or the Fact Checker at the Washington Post for rafts of examples.
Posts for BFFs: Installing people in senior advisory roles who have little or no experience with governing but a lot of personal history with the president, especially at the start of an administration,
Wet kisses: Sending list after list after list of glowing coverage about the president to the White House press corps.
Real estate grabs: Mulling whether they can physically move the press out of the West Wing (“you mean they are RIGHT DOWN THE HALL?”).
Threats: Threatening to cancel the press secretary’s daily briefing. Even some reporters argue this has outlived its usefulness — especially as a televised event that can be more show than information exchange.
Clamping down on what federal agencies can and cannot say to control the message.
Circumvention: Using new platforms and new outlets, like Twitter, YouTube and Marc Maron’s garage, to speak directly to Americans, rather than via the mainstream press. The platforms advance constantly, of course, but the desire is always there and is always used to the fullest advantage available at the time.
Teachers pets: Deciding who gets to ask questions first (and second, and so on).
Freeze outs: Shutting down White House access to those who ask annoying questions and/or write stories that offend the administration — from the Obama White House calling Fox News “an opponent’’ to the Bush White House icing the New York Times out of interviews for nearly his entire second term, and all the way back to Nixon and his enemies’ list. Every reporter who has covered a campaign or a politician has heard some version of “the media here is the opposition party,’’ accompanied by angry instructions to report differently or just go away.
Limiting access: Providing scant availability for the press to speak with policy people who actually know things.
Sure, there’s a spectrum of media-relations egregiousness that varies from president to president. But these are all old and time-worn press tactics that have been used — sometimes more effectively than others — by past administrations. As a White House correspondent for the Associated Press, I witnessed or was subjected to every one of them, as did all those I reported alongside in the White House press corps under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the presidents before them and those who are covering the Trump White House today.
Let’s all remember what the craft is and Stop Freaking Out.
Just because these things are not new doesn’t make them right, of course. It is imperative for reporters to push back — and hard — for more access, for fairness, for facts rather than spin and opinion. It is also critical to back down when proven to be wrong or unfair and, most important, to find ways around barriers. Successfully going around a White House press operation means collaborating with colleagues on other beats to produce a fuller story. It also means honing non-White House sources, knowing the facts better than your sources do and not relying on a single anonymous source for juicy tidbits, no matter how good. Following up on each other in the briefing or even in televised news conferences, rather than worrying about the individual “get,” can be key. A White House reporter’s subject is not supposed to make it easy, and it won’t be.
So let’s all remember what the craft is and Stop Freaking Out. Let’s have fewer stories and conversations about how President Trump and his team are trying to rein in the press. Let’s all focus more — more resources, more ink, more airtime — on his actions, what they mean for real people, what it says about his leadership and where they are going. Let’s freak out not about everything, but when this president — his approach, his ethics, his policies — is truly different from all those before.
White House reporters are hardworking, smart and competent professionals who have miles of experience at this game and play a crucial role in our democracy, whether or not their sources or the public like them. Let’s cheer them on to do what they know how to do well: hold a president accountable and document his decisions.
White House press corps: Buck up and make us proud.