Media frustration spills into briefing
By: Michael Calderone
January 23, 2009 08:10 AM EST
A growing media frustration with Barack Obama’s team spilled into the open at Thursday’s briefing, with reporters accusing the White House of stifling access to his oath re-do and giving Obama’s first interview as president to a multi-million dollar inauguration sponsor.
Veteran CBS newsman Bill Plante was one of the most vocal critics, questioning the White House’s handling of Wednesday night’s second swearing in – which was covered by just a four-reporter print pool that didn’t include a news photographer or TV correspondent.
He also asked new press secretary Robert Gibbs why ABC, which paid millions to host the DC Neighborhood Ball, was granted the only inauguration day interview with President Obama – a move he equated to “pay to play.”
“We have a tradition here of covering the president,” said Plante, who is covering his fourth administration.
Gibbs defended the White House’s moves, insisting aides acted in a “way that was upfront and transparent” in allowing the standard pool into the swearing-in. And Obama himself seemed mindful of making a good impression, paying a surprise visit to the White House pressroom a few hours after the briefing.
It’s been a bumpy 24 hours for Gibbs and company, as members of the White House press corps have publicly expressed frustration with an administration promising openness and transparency.
At the same time, some members of the Obama administration’s press team have signaled that they plan to shake up some of the old traditions of White House coverage, some of the longest-standing – and most jealously guarded – in town.
In recent weeks, New York Times editors complained that its White House team hadn’t gotten a sit-down with Obama during the transition, breaking an unofficial tradition whereby recent president-elects have free-wheeling exchanges with the Gray Lady before the inauguration.
In the case of the second swearing-in, however, it seemed to give reporters a chance to lay down an early marker on questioning whether Obama would live up to one of his key campaign pledges, at least when it comes to the media.
“It is ironic, the same day that the president is talking about transparency, we were not let in,” CNN’s Ed Henry said on the air Wednesday night after news of the second swearing-in broke.
Henry’s main gripe was that television reporters weren’t permitted to cover a historic moment, when Obama once again raised his right hand and took the oath before Justice John Roberts. The only images came from White House photographer Pete Souza.
Three wire services — The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse – refused to move those images, in protest of the White House’s handling of the event.
The wire services’ photographers were also denied access to photograph Obama sitting in the Oval Office on the first day, and similarly refused to move the White House approved photos.
Michael Oreskes, the AP’s managing editor for U.S. news, told his own news outlet that “we are not distributing what are, in effect, visual press releases.”
Later, in a statement to Politico, Oreskes said that the AP believes “access for news photographers has been a time-honored tradition at the White House through many administrations and needs to be continued.”
“We are working diligently with the White House staff to ensure this access,” he added.
Jennifer Loven, the AP’s White House correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, said she and the group's board "are addressing this aggressively with the White House—our strong objections to both the issue of them releasing photo handouts from events that the press should be able to cover, and the issue of how the pool was structured last night."
Providing access is probably the easiest ways to appease the White House press corps, which feeds on it. So by not allowing the three wire services in the Oval Office for day one—a ritual that typically yields flattering shots of a new president writing at his desk or chatting with aides—the press team picked a fight that could have been avoided.
But those weren’t the only issues of access to come up in Thursday’s roughly 50-minute briefing.
Before Gibbs took the podium, reporters were given a background briefing under an agreement to only attribute information to “senior administration officials”—a policy some news organizations object to as a matter of policy.
But when Gibbs let slip the name of one briefer, Greg Craig, a couple times, The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman asked, “Are we allowed to repeat that name?”
During the earliest days of the Clinton administration, such abrupt changes in the traditional press access were often met with harsh criticism from the briefing room pack, most notably, the blocking off of access to the office of then press secretary George Stephanopoulos.
Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who succeeded Stephanopoulos, said in PBS’s “The Clinton Years” that the move “made the press very angry because they lost access to a part of the building that they had had access to.”
“And it didn't serve us,” she continued. “And it was stupid and didn't last very long. I can't remember when the decision was made and the door was finally reopened but it was a complete waste of energy. It alienated people for no purpose. It served nothing. It served no one. And it was a rookie, rookie mistake.”
Myers said Thursday that the Obama’s decision to bar widespread access to the re-do of the oath wasn’t in the same category as shutting access to the press office, but wouldn’t help in relations with the media.
“I think not letting video, that’s a bit of a rookie mistake,” Myers said, adding that “when you can, it’s better to err on the side of inclusiveness with the press.”
On balance however, she said of Obama’s press team, “I think generally speaking they’re doing very well so far,” said Myers.
There have been a handful of rocky moments so far. Some press staffers found their name cards misspelled on Wednesday and phone lines weren’t properly hooked up. Reporters trying to reach the press staff got emails bounced back.
Also, press aides informed reporters that the doors of the lower press office will be locked until 8:30 am, an inconvenience for those on the early shift. Following a USA Today blog item, there was confusion about whether the Whitehouse.gov site would regularly publish pool reports since there was a “pool report” link on the site. And in the hours before Gibbs’ briefing, the northwest gate of the White House started running out of temporary passes.
Now, given the expected learning curve, most of these wrinkles should be ironed out in time. But on broader issues of access, it remains to be seen if the Obama press team is making rookie mistakes, or simply asserting a new protocol, not bound to past traditions that White House reporters have grown accustomed to. While the press corps balks at changes in access, these rules aren’t written in stone. It may chafe veterans of the briefing room, but it’s the administration’s prerogative on such matters.
Of course, the media landscape has changed significantly over the 16 years, and getting one’s message across through establishment media isn’t the only option for the new administration.
The Obama campaign proved that one could skirt around the mainstream media at times, whether by blasting out text messages to millions of supporters (the Biden pick), or leaking to select news outlets and blogs as a means of getting out the day’s talking points out.
But even if the press team is keeping reporters and photographers at bay, perhaps the President will draw them a bit closer.
After Obama signed an executive order Thursday morning to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year, “press office staffers began to shoo the pool out the door, and the camera lights were dimmed,” wrote Scripps Howard’s Bartholomew Sullivan in a pool report.
However, Obama stopped the reporter from being ushered out, saying, “there are three of these.” The lights came back on.
Obama flashes irritation in press room
President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press corps Thursday night, but got agitated when he was faced with a substantive question.
Asked how he could reconcile a strict ban on lobbyists in his administration with a Deputy Defense Secretary nominee who lobbied for Raytheon, Obama interrupted with a knowing smile on his face. "Ahh, see," he said, "I came down here to visit. See this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here."
Pressed further by the Politico reporter about his Pentagon nominee, William J. Lynn III, Obama turned more serious, putting his hand on the reporter's shoulder and staring him in the eye.
More Media Rage At Censoring By Obama
The White House press operation got off to a fumbling and stumbling start Thursday, with the day's opening briefers insisting on being identified only as "senior administration officials," followed swiftly by the new president's spokesman accidently outing one of the secret aides less than two minutes into his first White House briefing.
Although President Obama swept into office pledging transparency and a new air of openness, the press hammered spokesman Robert Gibbs for nearly an hour over a slate of perceived secretive slights that have piled up quickly for the new administration. It wasn't pretty.
"Why did the administration believe it was important for the American people not to know the name of the two senior administration officials who briefed us this morning on Guantanamo?" one reporter asked in the packed and steaming hot briefing room just off the White House West Wing.
"I hope that you all found the exercise that we did this morning helpful," Mr. Gibbs offered helpfully.
"Do you know," the reporter followed, "that you've used ... one of those senior officials' first names several times in this briefing?" A very long pause ensued.
"I do," the spokesman said, his cornflower-colored tie suddenly looking a bit too tight. "Are we allowed to repeat that name?" Mr. Gibbs answered by citing as precedent of Brazilian soccer stars being known only by a single name - sure to one day be a classic White House non-answer.
Then it got uglier.
"How is it transparent," another reporter asked, "when you control the only image of the re-swearing - there's nobody in there but four print reporters, there's no stills, there's no television? And the only recording that comes out, as I understand it, is one that a reporter made, not one that the White House supplied."
"Let me take your questions separately there," Mr. Gibbs began. "Well, we'd have had to get a big room," he finally posited with a smile.
"You could have had more than four in the pool," one reporter said. "Could have had a pool!" shouted another. "The whole pool!" spat a third. "We have a tradition here of covering the president!" yelled a fourth.
And so it went at the first official White House briefing of the new Obama administration - a fiery back and forth dispelling the notion that journalists would go easy on the guy that many reports show it went easy on during the marathon primary and general election campaigns.
Halfway through the interrogation, a reporter asked succinctly: "Is the honeymoon over already?"
A smiling Mr. Gibbs answered with sublime brevity: "I should ask you that."
The warmish winter day began with heated objections from the White House press corps. Before a "background briefing" to help reporters understand Mr. Obama's complex executive order on the detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, junior press aide Josh Earnest said "for your stories, they should be attributed to 'senior administration officials.' "
When an objection came from Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Mr. Earnest said earnestly: "It's not necessarily a precedent-setting decision, but it's a decision that we think will work best."
That set the mood for Mr. Gibbs' debut. After a session over the secret briefers, reporters moved to the debacle of the second swearing-in ceremony Mr. Obama undertook in the Oval Office on Wednesday evening. During a barrage of questions, the press secretary said eight times that the second oath of office was decided upon only out of "an abundance of caution," leaving the phrase alone only after reporters cackled at its last utterance.
Still, throughout the day's session, Mr. Gibbs was in control - affable, smiling often, answering questions in a slow, measured, slightly Southern drawl, joking with reporters who had covered Mr. Obama on the campaign trail. But he made clear who he works for: Over and over, he began his answers with "the president believes" and at least once said, "I just want to reiterate what the president said throughout the campaign and the transition."
On the creation of a new White House panel to recommend action on Guantanamo, he said: "I don't want to get ahead of the recommendations." In answer to one specific question, he said: "I don't have anything specifically." Asked the bottom line on another topic, he said it's "an ongoing discussion, ongoing planning process." When a reporter used the word "if" in a question, the new spokesman dismissed the query as "hypothetical," just as all four Bush spokesman had done before him.
And like many of his predecessors, he had his oddly unintelligible moments. Asked whether Mr. Obama should "lead by example," Mr. Gibbs said: "We'll check on that."
On more pointed questions, such as whether Osama bin Laden would be aggressively interrogated if captured, Mr. Gibbs dodged altogether: "Let me get some guidance from [White House Counsel] Greg [Craig] and members of the [National Security Council]."
"Is it fair for me then to conclude that it is an open question?" the reporter asked.
"No, it's fair for you to conclude that I want to make sure I don't make a mistake," Mr. Gibbs said to laughter.
With that, he was off. But he had a parting idea for the heaving throng of reporters. "We should sell tickets and have the money go to the deficit or something," he said before heading for the door, shouting over his shoulder, "See you tomorrow."