< Frustration in the White House Press Corps

Transcript

Friday, March 01, 2013

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   Basketball legend turned broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier has turned courtside commentary into pure poetry.

WALT FRAZIER:   Erratic, dramatic, charismatic, acrobatic.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   His flashy rhymes and dazzling suits express one side of the man called Clyde but obscure the other, the entrepreneur, gardener, yoga aficionado. Join me on March 8th at New York Public Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space for a chat with Walt Frazier about his life in basketball and broadcasting - those suits! For tickets, go to Onthemedia.org.

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Aren’t you tired of hearing that Congress is broken? I mean, what's Obama doing for our crumbling political infrastructure? That question was posed to the President at Friday's White House press briefing.

  [CLIP]:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO (QUESTION):  Thank you, Mr. President. You said a few minutes ago, and you’ve said repeatedly, that the country has to stop careening from crisis to crisis.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION:  So with a few crises behind us, and a few more crises ahead of us -

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  - taking a step back from this specific debate over the sequester, how, as the leader of this country, do you plan to stop the country from careening to - from crisis to crisis? 

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, a couple of things. Number one…

 [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Not a bad question, exactly, but so broad, so just kind of zeitgeist-y. The reporter surely knew it wouldn’t yield any real information. Then again, as Bob observes in this report, White House press briefings rarely ever do.

BOB GARFIELD:  Marine One circles in the winter rain and the lights on the White House South Lawn, returning from a staged event at a Virginia Shipyard to gin up support for the administration’s revenue proposals. President Obama decopters and strides purposefully across the soggy grass, for the Oval Office. Witnessing this extremely high level walking are some 50 observers huddled under umbrellas and making small talk. Cameras click and whirr in perfunctory unison. The return leg from Newport News to Washington “No News” has been duly recorded. Ladies and gentlemen, your White House Press Corps in action.

  [HOUSE OF CARDS CLIP]:

ZOE BARNES:  The White House is where news goes to die. Everything is canned, these perfectly prepared statements.

LUCAS GOODWIN:  It’s a prestigious job, Zoe.

ZOE BARNES:  It used to be, when I was in ninth grade. Now it’s a graveyard. The only halfway interesting thing they do is serve a big dinner party once a year where they pat themselves on the back and rub shoulders with movie stars. Who needs that?

  [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:  That's a particularly resonant bit of dialogue from the Netflix series, House of Cards, an inside-the-Beltway melodrama in which the conflict tends to be a bit more compelling than the real-life version. On TV, there's lots of skullduggery and drinking and illicit sex. And in the White House briefing room, it’s mainly talking points.

  [CLIP]:

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY:  In anticipation of the meeting Friday, the President did invite the four leaders…

  [SOUND UP & UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:  In the past week, the Press Corps’ very relevance has been questioned, in Slate and also in Politico, which called Obama “a puppet master.” Guess who are the puppets? That’s what I asked CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett, although I chose the slightly less pejorative term, “stenographer.”

MAJOR GARRETT:  The President has a message. He’s the leader of the free world, and his message deserves to be communicated. That is a prerogative of the presidency. Conveying that accurately is not stenography. And I don’t consider that beneath me.

BOB GARFIELD:  The nagging question this week though was what has displaced him? Once upon a time, these ink-stained barracudas, whether sardined into their cramped West Wing annex or on the road with the President, represented the only way to officially reach the electorate. Those dynamics, every now and then, did result in some drama, such as the 1974 confrontation between CBS’ Dan Rather and President Richard Nixon.

  [CLIP]:

RICHARD NIXON:  Are you running for something?"

  [AUDIENCE RESPONSE/APPLAUSE]

DAN RATHER:  No sir, Mr. President. Are you?

  [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:  Tens of millions of people tuned in to what were then all three networks gasped at Rather’s impertinence, but today's reporters and photographers have been marginalized by a gazillion other channels - Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, the White House’s ongoing blog. the “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit and, on TV, not much evening news but plenty of Live at Five, David Letterman and The View. The White House is now itself a kind of media house. Ann Compton, of ABC News.

ANN COMPTON:  They become publishers, they become journalists, they become their own advertising agency.

BOB GARFIELD:  Never mind one-on-ones with the President, says Compton, who’s covering her seventh presidential administration, most of the time reporters can’t even get access enough to shout out questions at a “grip and grin” session.

ANN COMPTON:  We don't cover Oval Office photo ops, we don't cover many of the meetings he has when he meets with people on immigration or gun violence or the fiscal cliff, the meetings with Congress. It's been six months since I've even been in the Oval Office on my turn to be the pool member in there. To shut the media out to the extent this administration has, I think, is a disgrace.

BOB GARFIELD:  And when administration officials do make themselves available, the information is almost always on background, which means nobody's name gets attached to the subsequent story and no official is held accountable.

For FOX News Correspondent Ed Henry, the final straw came with an event entirely closed to the press. Okay, it wasn’t a Summit or a bill signing. Okay, it was a golf game between Obama and Tiger Woods. Nonetheless, in his capacity as president of the White House Correspondents Association, Henry excoriated the administration for “Operation Zero Dark 18 Holes,” a complaint that White House Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest shrugged off.

JOSHUA EARNEST:  Sometimes the President’s commitment to engaging with the American public means that there are some members of the White House Press Corps who get a little frustrated that they’re – that they’re not getting as many interviews as they would like. But, at the end of the day, the President’s responsibility is not to the members of the White House Press Corps, it’s actually to the American public. That’s not the only way that we can fulfill our responsibilities. In order to fulfill his responsibility, to communicate his priorities, the President needs to avail himself of all the opportunities to do that. And that’s something that we’ve done with a lot of success here.

BOB GARFIELD:  For instance, News Anchor Day. While the captive Washington Press Corps cooled its heels approximately 20 feet away recently, the President sat down with anchors from eight local stations from around the country, among them Kevin Ogle of KFOR, Oklahoma City, who didn’t necessarily go for the jugular.

KEVIN OGLE:  You know, here I am, some local yokel from Oklahoma City [LAUGHS] getting to go up and interview the President. And we had limited time, and so, there’s not a lot of opportunity to ask follow-up questions, you know, or to take him to task on things.

BOB GARFIELD:  In other words, no Nixon versus Rather moments?

KEVIN OGLE:  [LAUGHING] No, it wasn’t like that at all.

BOB GARFIELD:  Instead, Ogle passed along viewer questions, including one from basketball star Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

  [CLIP]:

KEVIN OGLE:  This one comes from KD:  Putting your loyalty to the Bulls aside, [PRES. OBAMA LAUGHS] what are your thoughts on Oklahoma City’s Thunder basketball team? You know who KD is?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I do. [OGLE LAUGHING] I’ve had a chance to play with him. He’s a, he’s a great guy. You know, his, his mother and his grandmother still live in this area, and….

  [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:  In contrast, Susan Peters of KAKE, KAKE Wichita, was fairly aggressive in questioning Obama’s plan to cut tax exemptions for Kansas’ big corporate aircraft industry. That’s right after she handed the President a scrapbook she made of his mom’s Kansas heritage. I wondered if she thought she and her local colleagues had been fully respected.

QUESTION:  Did you get the sense that they looked at you, all eight of you, like eight Ron Burgundys?

MAN:  I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal.

SUSAN PETERS:  [LAUGHS] Bob, you put it very well. Now, I don’t know if they looked at us like Ron Burgundys, but I do think they – the administration thinks they can get their message out better through local anchors than through the White House Press Corps. I do definitely think that.

BOB GARFIELD:  But she jumped at the opportunity anyway. Who wouldn’t?

SUSAN PETERS:  To be honest with you, it was thrilling. It was – thrilling being in the White House interviewing the President of the United States. But the national media, they not only know the questions to ask, but they have the perspective behind the questions that local reporters and local anchors can’t have. I would say you go, White House Press Corps. You are crucial to us. And any attempt to diminish their role, I feel, is completely wrong.

BOB GARFIELD:  Before I left the briefing room one day this week, I ran into E.J. Dionne, inveterate political analyst for the Washington Post, PBS and NPR. I asked him if this administration has perfected the end around.

E.J. DIONNE:  Well, I think all presidents try to get around the Press Corps, and now there are more opportunities to do it. But there is still a very large share of the population that’s going to get its news mediated. No matter how much we talk about the irrelevance of traditional journalism, it’s still a big enough audience that they have to worry about it.

MAN:  E.J.?

E.J. DIONNE:  Yep, are we ready?

BOB GARFIELD:  And with that, Dionne went into a briefing about the sequestration showdown for a handful of the Press Corps, on background, of course. So no, the lights in the White House briefing room won’t be switched off anytime soon. The place still plays an important role.

  [2/27/13 PRESS BRIEFING/CLIP]:

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN:  We think it’s as many as 40,000 people will lose jobs.

  [REMARKS UP & UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:  But to understand how things have changed, one merely needs to look up at the podium. As Jay Carney reads scripted answers to a reporter’s question, just behind him, next to the iconic White House Seal, hangs a giant flat screen TV, scrolling all the up-to-the-minute headlines. The source? The White House blog.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So Bob, I noticed you made mention of FOX News’ Ed Henry filing a complaint about poor access. Why didn’t you put his voice in the piece?

BOB GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] I couldn’t do that. We repeatedly sought comment from the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association on the subject of reporters having access to the President, but President Henry declined to make himself available.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh.

Guests:

Ann Compton, E.J. Dionne, Josh Earnest, Major Garrett, Kevin Ogle and Susan Peters

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield