04.03.10

Death of the White House Press Corps

With a Twitter-savvy president and their own ailing media companies, Lloyd Grove finds the boys in the briefing room more depressed than ever.

Is the White House press corps teetering (possibly tweeting) on the brink of obsolescence?

That is, are Twitter, Facebook and YouTube—to say nothing of slick video vignettes and candid shots of a triumphantly appealing President Obama on WhiteHouse.gov—poised to supplant the often-skeptical journalistic stylings of CBS, CNN, and The New York Times?

It’s an inexcusably heretical thought, especially to the wizened veterans who occupy the coveted reserved seating in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, just off the West Wing, during presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs’ daily Q&As.

Members of the press corps who wish to cover the president’s trip to Prague this week will have to make their own way by flying commercial.

“We’ve been on the brink of that longer than just this presidency,” said CBS senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, who has been covering the beat since Ronald Reagan's term. “When I came here in 1981, Mike Deaver made no secret of the fact that he wanted to reach out beyond us to the public, by having events where the president would be presented to the public unfiltered—and that has been the goal of every White House since.”

For as long as there has been a White House, a healthy tension has existed between the president, who seeks to convince the citizenry with calibrated messages and images, and the middlemen of the Fourth Estate, who traditionally convey, interpret, rebut, deride, and otherwise filter those messages and images. Every so often, the president takes his revenge, as Obama did on Friday, mocking skeptical reporters who have been questioning the positive impact of health-care reform. "Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm and you planted some seeds and they came out next day and they looked—Nothing’s happened! There’s no crop! We’re gonna starve! Oh, no! It’s a disaster!" Obama told a town meeting in Maine. “It’s been a week, folks. So before we find out if people like health-care reform, we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place. Just a thought.”

Until relatively recently, middlemen like Plante had the upper hand, and the media filter was robust—notwithstanding persistent and clever attempts by various White House communications gurus to bypass the journalistic kibitzing. But these days, as Plante acknowledges, the filter is fraying.

And the MSM’s relevance is up for grabs.

At the very moment that social media and enhanced technology are proliferating and gaining audience share by the tens of millions, giving President Obama powerful interactive tools to communicate directly with the public, the old media are in a world of hurt.

With their audiences eroding along with advertising revenue, long-established television and print outlets are painfully cinching their belts. They are shutting down Washington bureaus, firing hundreds of experienced journalists and—as with a planned presidential trip this Wednesday to Prague, where Obama will sign an arms-control deal and meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—not even anteing up for the usual White House press charter. Members of the press corps who wish to cover the visit will have to make their own way to Prague by flying commercial.

Next stop: The Filterless Presidency?

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near that,” said Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton, by way of denying that gambling is going on in Casablanca. Burton resists the notion that he and his colleagues are scheming to undermine the trained professionals in the pressroom, in order to have a clean shot at disseminating their spin. “We do take advantage of the new technology to give more information to as many people as we can. The president made a commitment to the transparent White House, and we are working for that effort with new media—working in any way we can to get more images and information to the public.”

Of course, now more than ever, technology gives this White House—which boasts an increasingly sophisticated new-media department based in the Old Executive Office Building—the ability to distribute content to millions over the Internet without relying on third parties.

Thirty-one-year-old White House aide Macon Phillips, who directs President Obama’s new-media operation, said the White House has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, around 500,000 fans on Facebook, and 70,000 email subscribers, though he declined to reveal how many unique visitors and page-views the White House Web site regularly receives. “We haven’t released those numbers,” he told me—suggesting that they’ve got a ways to go before competing with mainstream outlets like the Times (which indeed far outranks the WhiteHouse.gov on such Internet traffic-tracking sites as Alexa.com).

“I would say this notion of replacement is a false choice—this is more an expansion of the playing field generally,” Phillips said. “It’s healthy for everyone to have access to more content. People are getting their news from a variety of sources.”

One morning last week, the sardonically world-weary Plante, who looks a decade younger than his 72 years, was sitting in shirtsleeves with CBS Radio reporter Mark Knoller in the network’s glass-doored cubby just behind the briefing room.

“Technology has made it much easier now for the White House,” Plante went on. “The availability of all this material means that people have to do their own filtering. The so-called mainstream media, which believes it has the experience to do the filtering, isn’t there to do it for them, and for a lot of people that’s just fine. They resent the hell out of us anyway.”

So what’s wrong with that?

“In the end, who gets the decent information? The people who rely on trusted filters, whether they’re online or on the air,” Plante replied. “If you do it all yourself, you’re gonna get a load of crap!”

At which point Knoller jokingly agreed, booming out in his radio voice: “YEAH! What HE said!”

Knoller, the press corps’ unofficial statistician who has covered the White House beat since George H.W. Bush, said Obama hasn’t held a formal press conference in nine months, since July 22. Since then, Knoller told me, the president has regularly conducted one-on-one interviews with various privileged television personalities and more than a dozen town meetings, a setting in which Obama shines. Of course, much of that conforms to the traditional tactics employed by past administrations.

What is new, Knoller said, is Press Secretary Gibbs’ use of Twitter exclusively to announce important information—such as Gibbs’ recent tweet that the president was canceling a long-planned trip to Indonesia in order to be on hand in Washington for a critical period in health-care legislating. That tweet put the noses of several pressroom regulars out of joint. Bill Plante, for one, said he doesn’t have time for Twitter.

“With Twitter, Gibbs doesn’t send a note to the press—it’s sending a note to anybody that follows him,” Knoller told me. (Gibbs has around 52,000 followers.) “I’ve got no problems with him using Twitter. I’m on Twitter, too. But I never retweet his tweets. I rewrite them and I put them in context, because it’s not my job to give him access to all of my followers. [Knoller has 23,600 followers.] I’m not a retweeter, I’m a reporter.”

A small but satisfying victory, to be sure.

NBC White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie—who co-anchors MSNBC’s 9 a.m. show Daily Rundown with her colleague Chuck Todd—pointed out that sometimes, instead of giving photojournalists access to newsworthy events, the White House lets Pete Souza, the president’s talented personal photographer, post behind-the-scenes images on Flickr—a development that has prompted protests in the press room.

“There are some wonderful pictures, like one of Hillary Clinton raising her arms to congratulate Obama on passing health care, and it seems like the White House has sought to humanize Obama and the entire first family with these photos,” Guthrie told me.

ABC's Jake Tapper is not amused. “That’s not photojournalism; it’s hagiography,” he told me.

The redoubtable Helen Thomas—who started at the White House covering JFK for United Press International, and still has a front-row seat in the briefing room—is worried that all the downsizing at media outlets will result in less-reliable coverage of the president.

“It’s a tragedy in my book—it means less accountability,” Thomas, now a columnist for Hearst, told me, looking up from her newspaper (actual ink on newsprint). “We certainly haven’t had any news conferences in a long time, which reminds me of Watergate in the sense of a long time of not having press conferences. Obama has given a lot of interviews, but that doesn’t reveal the whole picture at all.”

Thomas, at 89, might have slowed down a bit since her wire-service days, but she’s still combat-ready with a sharply honed question. “The difference between a news conference and interviews is that the questions from the ‘rabble’ will come from left field,” she said, “and they will ask something that will really startle him” and push the president off his talking points.

Thomas is naturally skeptical of the new media and all the Facebooking and tweeting. “I think we’re all suffering from the real lack of true communication,” she said. “We can be ignored totally—almost. The White House feels they have other ways.” She also lamented the proliferation of bloggers, some of whom are formally accredited to the White House.

“There’s no accountability for a blogger,” she scoffed. “They can ruin lives, reputations, and once you send something into the air, it’s going to land, and there’s nothing that can curb them from saying anything they want. Everybody with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist, and everybody with a cellphone thinks they’re a photographer.”

But that’s another story

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.