ABOUT THAT WHITE HOUSE PRESS CORPS…. The Washington Post devotes some space today to the idea of Spring Cleaning, running 10 “Why We Should Get Rid Of…” pieces. Ana Marie Cox’s piece on eliminating the White House press corps was of particular interest.
Intense interest in the Obama administration has swelled the ranks of the White House press corps. Outlets such as Politico have thrown a basketball team’s worth of bodies at the project, and outlets that didn’t even exist until recently — Fivethirtyeight.com, the Huffington Post — have created their own White House correspondent positions.
Yet too often, the White House briefing room is where news goes to die.
Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent. A thorough debunking of the Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers’ State Department and national security correspondents. Bush’s abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe’s legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off The Washington Post’s Metro desk. […]
It’s not that the reporters covering the president are bad at their jobs. Most are experienced journalists at the top of their game — and they’re wasted at the White House, where scoops are doled out, not uncovered.
The argument is not without merit, but I have a slightly different take. It seems to me the problem isn’t so much with the White House press corps as it is with the White House press briefings.
I’ve watched or read the transcript of just about every press briefing for the past 5+ years (excluding some of the duller Dana Perino sessions at the height of last year’s presidential campaign). I’ve come to believe the briefings aren’t especially necessary, and rarely produce actual news.
We can all think of key periods — the months leading up to the war in Iraq, for example — in which the White House press corps just refused to engage the press secretary when the administration needed real scrutiny. But while some of this dynamic has changed since 2002 and 2003, some of the more structural problems remain.
The briefings, to be sure, have theatrical qualities. The press secretary has a message to get out, and comes up with ways to say the same thing without sounding too repetitious. Reporters have areas of interest, including a series of questions they know the press secretary won’t answer. The fun part is watching the reporters come up with creative ways to ask questions that won’t get answered, and watching the press secretary come up with equally creative ways to dodge the inquiries without appearing evasive. Most of the time, it’s about waiting for someone to make a mistake.
While junkies like me find this entertaining, that doesn’t make the exercise worthwhile.
For Cox, this suggests the press corps at the White House just isn’t necessary. She may be right. But I’m still inclined to think there’s some utility of having professional journalists in the building, working sources, keeping their ear to the ground in the West Wing.
I say, keep the White House press corps and scrap their briefings.