Press Secretary Jay Carney opened his daily White House briefing Wednesday by recalling the time when I started mine at the same podium with a brown paper bag on my head. I was going to answer questions as one of the “high level sources” who so often show up in news reports.
There are times when every presidential spokesman would like that anonymity and a moment of humor when everyone can share a laugh. There has not been much of that these days at the White House.
The relationship between the White House press corps and the president’s press secretary is necessarily an adversarial one. The spokesman is there to answer questions and provide information about the president’s actions, decisions, and thinking on every conceivable topic. The press is there as surrogate for the American people—to raise questions on the public’s behalf which help hold the executive accountable. The role of the press, as Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley once said, is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” especially if there is some sense that the executive has grown too comfortable in the use or abuse of its power.
There is a lot of affliction today in the White House and in its relationship with the media. The relationship has grown bitter and the atmosphere in the briefing room is often sulfurous. The press is often cynical and snarky in posing questions to the president’s representatives, while the president’s staff is often dismissive of the press and sometimes brags about its ability to reach critical audiences on its own, using selective interviews with publications and broadcasts which reach niche audiences.
Revelations that reporters’ call records were seized as part of a Justice Department leaks inquiry obviously makes matters worse. But good for the White House that they swiftly moved to resurrect legislation that would shield reporters as they do their work.
I’ll confess that part of the problem today is the live televised coverage of the press secretary’s briefing. This is something I more or less let happen on my watch and it ends up having been a bad idea. The daily briefing has become a spectacle of posturing and it all seems done for the benefit of the camera and not the public. The briefing is supposed to be for gathering and disseminating the raw ingredients of what will later be cooked into the sausage of good reporting on the news of the day. It’s not supposed to be “news” itself. No one needs to watch that sausage being cooked.
So here are my humble suggestions on what both sides might do to improve their working relationship at the White House.
First, turn off the daily briefing. Yes, it should be available for coverage and for use, especially by broadcast journalists. But adopt the rules that exist at the State Department (which I should have done in the first place.) The briefing is embargoed for delivery until it is over. No live coverage except in rare circumstances when a request for a “filing break” is requested and real news is happening. This would require reporters to report instead of posture. It would require the White House to have real answers.
Second, return the gaggle. “Gaggle”—think a flock of geese—is the nickname for an informal, off-camera session with the press secretary in the morning where correspondents come into the press office and sit down to discuss breaking news, hear what the White House has planned for the day, and argue for what should be open for coverage or not. It was a great forum in my day for previewing the day ahead. It was also a great way for me to convey to my colleagues at the White House why our carefully planned events sometimes would not work because the media was interested in something else. The press needs to believe someone on the inside in the West Wing is looking out for their interests.
Finally, start treating each other with respect. Don’t call the White House staff “liars” on TV because that suggests ill motives they don’t have. They are just piecing the story together like you are. And stop calling reporters with abusive complaints and cursing at them. How about a Golden Rule in this relationship? Do unto them what they would do unto you.