There should be a morning-after pill for journalists. As access to White House insiders has decreased over the decades, journalism has obsessed over the rare lifting of the curtain—particularly press conferences with the president.
This week has been no exception. The Tuesday evening press conference in the East Room, which I attended, has been analyzed, dissected, examined, scrutinized; deconstructed and reconstructed, praised and excoriated. I heard Fox’s Bill O’Reilly call in his body language expert so that his viewers would know not only what Barack Obama said but also what he was thinking when he said it. There’s alchemy in the no-spin zone!
Forget O’Reilly, though. For sheer perspicacity, the prize goes to a commentator on CNN who said that the press conference, held on the 64th day of Obama’s presidency, revealed that he would be a one-term president. This sort of fantasy in the name of analysis deserves a Hall of Fame of its own.
The media does the morning-after thing for good and sufficient reason: Over the years the White House, under both parties, has become more and more impenetrable to reporters. We don’t roam the place as we once did in the days of Johnson and Nixon. In those days, reporters could walk the West Wing freely and could interview staffers without the intrusion of the press office, and the numbing effect of trying to conduct an interview in the presence of a press office minder.
No news will be broken when the minder is there, presumably to keep tabs on both the journalist and the official. Also, as I have often said, the press office presence cuts the White House off from a valuable source of information that is hard for presidential aides to get except from journalists.
In the days when you could get to senior White House players without a minder, interviews would invariably end with, “What have you heard?” And sometimes,“What do you think?”
Can you imagine any senior official asking those questions in the presence of a de facto double agent from the press office? I can tell you it doesn’t happen and it won’t happen.
As the White House press corps has swelled in numbers, it has lost in access. It is less effective and more completely controlled by the White House press office. With each successive president, the manipulation of the media becomes more pervasive and more obvious.
Take this latest press conference, referred to on the White House address system as “the program.” Twice this happened after the 360-plus journalists and photographers filed into the East Room.
The anonymous voice on the public address system was anything but a press conference in the old sense of the word. It was, indeed, a program. Only 13 reporters were called upon to ask questions. And clearly, the selection of these had nothing to do with their skills as interrogators. Pointedly, no major newspapers were called upon and few reporters, who was not backed by a television network, had any hope of getting the nod. Radio was completely shunned.
How one longed for a real press conference: a forest of hands and a multitude voices crying out, “Mr. President.” That system was ragged but in its way fair. The small radio station could compete with the mighty TV network.
Obama may be an egalitarian at heart but his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is anything but. He is an elitist with a penchant for a fistful of TV reporters. The rest of us have the morning-after blues–and no medication.