< Live from the Briefing Room


Friday, December 29, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In the next two years, the White House will have to at least make an effort to placate an increasingly restive, now Democratic, Congress. Meanwhile, the White House Press Secretary will be coping with an increasingly cantankerous press corps.

TONY SNOW: Well if you listen to the chairman you will have noted he’s not trying to -


TONY SNOW: Well, David, please, you get mad -

DAVID GREGORY: - read the report, I’m just saying those are all quotes.

TONY SNOW: I know. I know they’re all quotes. I’m now, I’m now going to try to proceed to try to place them in context -

BOB GARFIELD: White House Press Secretary Tony Snow seems to glory in the post that appeared to crush his predecessor Scott McClellan, but there’s no question, something about those briefings brings out the beast in nearly everyone. One such beast was ABC newsman Sam Donaldson. His first stint in the press room spanned 1977 to 1987, the second from 1998 to 1999, when the briefings first went live. Last March we called him up to relive that experience. He told us that the briefing room had changed a lot in the intervening decade, and that it had everything to do with the presence of the camera.
SAM DONALDSON: I think it was a great impact on the briefing process, and, I think, negatively, and I've thought that for years. And I noticed the other day that Mike McCurry, the man who had instituted that process, said he thought it was one of his mistakes, and I agree.


SAM DONALDSON: Well, in the White House briefing room, the press secretary for whichever administration - it doesn't matter - comes out to say only what the President wants him to say and no more. And, of course, reporters want to know more and want to talk about maybe the bad news, not just the good news. So it can get very tense at times, and you go back and forth. And when people see this on television, they say, well, what are these nasty, vicious dogs of the press doing assailing that fine, upstanding individual -


SAM DONALDSON: - who's press secretary to the President? And it just really doesn't help the process. And, as I say, it can get very tense. I could remember times when I was there when there was no television, when we'd go, Helen Thomas and I and others would go round and round with Larry Speakes or even Marlon Fitzwater, who was one of the very best, and you'd hurl, "well, you're not telling the truth here!" "Well, what do you mean I'm not telling the truth? Don't you accuse me of not telling the truth!" I can remember an exchange like that. So I don't think this is something new that just comes about because the cameras are there.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, let me make a proposition in defense of having cameras in that room. It seems to me that if the reporters are asking questions and the press secretary is deflecting them, dodging them or what have you. Isn't it to the, I don't know, benefit of media and democracy to watch those questions not being answered in real time?

SAM DONALDSON: You have a point. And if all the viewers were discerning or the majority of them were discerning and they watched daily and they understood the issues and went back and forth and saw that the press secretary was dodging something, because most press secretaries are very artful; they will simply say, for instance, the President has said as long as the ongoing investigation continues, it would be inappropriate for him to say anything. Well, that sounds very reasonable. But, of course, if you point out that the President last week, in fact, commented on the investigation, when it served his purpose, then you're going to have a little fight with the press secretary. And so I think at first glance, people watching, when they see that little fight develop, may not say to themselves, "ah-ha, this press secretary is dissembling, is doing the light fantastic." They will simply say, at least it's been my experience that they say, "well, why are you being so mean? I mean, he's answered the question. Well, why do you keep persisting with the very same question that he's answered? I don't understand. Have you got an agenda?"

BOB GARFIELD: So in terms of media literacy, what the public has to understand is, sure, you can watch these briefings but you really should stay tuned for the resulting story, because it will at least attempt to put things in perspective and not just show an ongoing tit-for-tat between the spokesman and a group of reporters.

SAM DONALDSON: Well, I think that's right because, after all, if you're reporting on the presidency, it's important to be at the briefings, but that's only one part, and sometimes it's the very smallest part of assembling facts for the story. But as you assemble the other facts for your story, people aren't being there to watch. They're not able to see you make the telephone calls that might give you the vital piece that clarifies things. To have people watch only a small portion of the process of collecting the story and one where you are contentious, and disputes arise and voices are raised, then it really doesn't serve the public well.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Sam. Well, thanks so much for joining us.

SAM DONALDSON: Always a pleasure, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Sam Donaldson, among many other achievements in his storied career, was twice a White House correspondent for ABC News.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For three decades, press secretaries have tended to come from policy and public relations backgrounds, but there was a time when presidents routinely recruited spokesmen from the other side of the podium. FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and Ford all did. But the current spokeman Tony Snow, is a different animal, very much a product of his times, not just because he's the first TV personality tapped for the job, but because, as a Fox News pundit and sometime substitute for Rush Limbaugh, he’s straddled the increasingly blurry line between journalism and opinion mongering. Shortly after Snow’s appointment last April, we spoke to ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin who predicted that Snow would use his TV experience to good effect.

MARK HALPERIN: It's only been two presidencies where the briefing has been televised. I don't think any of the previous television-era press secretaries have used a daily televised briefing to maximum effect. And the thought is that having someone who will use that stage the way he used a commercial television network’s venue to try to advance the cause of a president we'll see how effective it can be. And if he's effective, I suspect that the job description for future White House press secretaries will include, "must have three to five years of broadcast, television or radio experience" because it is an incredibly valuable platform. There's no other press secretary for any entity in the United States whose work commands so much attention, including often live cable and radio coverage, including the ability to become the lead quote in the network news and in wire stories all across the world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Halperin is ABC News’ Political Director. Mike McCurry is the man to blame for the decision to go live in the briefing room. He served as press secretary for President Clinton for four years, shuffling and sidestepping like the best of them, but respected by the press, perhaps because he let those cameras roll, perhaps because he seemed genuinely frustrated by presidential mendacity, or perhaps because he quit in 1998, declaring that he was out of the loop on the Lewinsky scandal. When we spoke to him last February, we observed that the briefing room had grown far livelier in the last year but was just as uninformative.

MIKE McCURRY: Well, I tell you, that place, you know, many listeners may not know it, it's built over a former swimming pool, and there are times when you're standing up there as press secretary you'd like a trap door to open so you can plunge - [OVERTALK]


MIKE McCURRY: - into the deep end because that's [LAUGHING] where you feel like you are.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you take some responsibility for some of that, don't you? You were quoted in Katherine Seelye's New York Times piece on Monday, saying that allowing those briefings to be aired live on TV was, a quote "huge error" on your part.

MIKE McCURRY: Look, I think if I had put a simple ground rule on that initial decision to allow coverage, it would have made for a much different environment, if I had said, "look, this is all available for coverage, you can use it in your stories, but let's not have live transmission of these proceedings because that would get in the way of us being able to explore thoroughly certain subjects."


MIKE McCURRY: Because then journalists would have to do what good journalists do; they would have to use editorial judgment in picking out the things that really are important that the public needs to know, versus those things that are just mildly entertaining.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying you would prefer to have the "media filter," as Bush puts it, bearing down on this process?

MIKE McCURRY: It's a, you know, ironic admission, but I would. I would, at the end of the day, rather put my trust in people who are going to try to go and scan all the information that's available and then put it in some coherent frame for the consumer, for the citizen, than to just kind of give this incoherent taste of what goes on in that briefing room, that nobody can really understand because you're not part of the game.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But certainly you must have assumed that some benefit would accrue to the White House. I know that CNN told you that when you were on the air, they got 100,000 extra households tuning in.

MIKE McCURRY: Sure. There was a lot of self-interest in the decision, not the least of which I really enjoyed the idea of being a momentary matinee idol - [LAUGHTER] - on C-Span. But you're right. The ability to frame a response through all the media that's available, that did advantage the White House.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I guess pretty soon after you decided to roll those briefings live, the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened, and probably you would have been happier if you had less regular exposure to the press.

MIKE McCURRY: Once it became a live televised event in the days of Monica [CHUCKLES] Lewinsky, I think it lost a lot of its usefulness because people were putting on a show. I was, you know, putting on a show, standing there as the beleaguered aide trying desperately to get off to a different subject. The press had to hone in and bore in on what was the scandal du jour. And it ceased to become what a news briefing ought to be, a way in which we can pass information to the media so that they can then report and get the information to the public. My fear is most citizens watch this and it just adds to their sense of despair that, you know, Washington is screwed up and people don't get it there, because what they're talking about doesn't have anything to do with what my life is about.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's because the print reporters there want an actual useable quote that advances the story, and McClellan isn't doing it, so they'll hammer away. The TV people will hammer away for their own reasons. The whole reporting process becomes distorted, you say, by the live-ness of this event. And, in fact, some reporters say that they don't like it at all, that they would really prefer that people don't watch them work.

MIKE McCURRY: Look, those reporters know, because they're told regularly by the outfits that survey this - for example, the Pew Charitable Trusts that have done a lot of work on what are our public attitudes towards the media - they know that the media as an institution has been in decline, just like government itself. There's less trust, less favorable reaction to the work that gets done. And I think that's in part because we're letting too much of the sausage [LAUGHTER] being seen made. My other concern is now it seems like the entire federal government, which is a vast enterprise, is being filtered through that one room where there's a podium and a handful of reporters and that, you know, we're losing a lot of the coverage of all the other aspects of government that need to be in front of the American people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thanks very much.

MIKE McCURRY: Good being with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike McCurry is a washington based communications consultant and former press secretary to President Clinton. Here’s a taste of Mike McCurry behind the podium:

MIKE McCURRY: I was determined, when that story broke back in January, was to never come here and do what some of my predecessors unfortunately did, which was to lie to you and mislead you. And sometimes not knowing the answer, even though that puts you in a tough position too, is better than consciously misleading people. Now, did I ever knowingly come here and, and send you folks in the wrong direction? I did not. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]