Dispatch November 2009

DC Media Insiders Give Gibbs a Grade: C+

Survey finds White House press secretary accessible but too often hostile to reporters.
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As White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs is accustomed to standing in front of reporters and, occasionally, taking a beating. Now, in an Atlantic/National Journal poll of Washington media insiders, he comes in for another round of punishment. Asked to grade Gibbs on a letter scale, 33 respondents from across the media spectrum give him an average of a C+. Gibbs gets credit for “accessibility and honesty” but is knocked for being “contemptuous of reporters” and for failing to “communicate a coherent narrative explaining Obama’s leadership.

This is not the first time Gibbs, a trusted member of Obama’s inner circle, has been criticized by his target audience. As a media strategist on the Obama campaign trail, he was known to sometimes harass reporters for any coverage of his boss, however minor, that he deemed unfair. In a Politico story published just after last November’s election, Richard Wolffe, former White House correspondent for Newsweek, described Gibbs as “a very effective combination of Southern charm and Chicago steel,” while Obama biographer David Mendell dubbed him “the bad cop to Obama’s good cop.” For some of our respondents, the “bad cop” act has gotten old. “Gibbs gets a D, at best,” replied one insider. “He's arrogant, wildly partisan, has contempt for the press and rarely divulges useful information.”

Gibbs declined to comment on the poll.

We also asked participants to rank the importance of six different forms of media. On a one-to-five scale, they give print newspapers the highest score of 4.5, followed by websites and blogs, magazines, radio, television, and, at a paltry 1.6, social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Responses ranged from the unapologetic—“I NEVER read blogs”—to the wistful—“I probably should give the web a 5, but I just can't bring myself to do it,” and, “I guess I am old-fashioned and still lean a lot on newspapers and NPR.” Magazines tallied a respectable 3.5—“The Economist is a must read, but everything else is issue-dependent,” according to one insider—while social media was deemed mostly useful for linking to traditional news stories.

Answers here echo results from our April Media Insiders poll, when the group was asked whether the internet was harming or helping journalism. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in that survey said the effect was negative.

Attached as they are to newsprint, respondents were then asked whether they thought struggling papers should become non-profits in order to receive tax breaks. While 42 percent of the insiders say yes, venturing that it’s “worth a shot,” especially if the alternative is “going out of business,” 52 percent do not think the non-profit route is a good idea. “Struggling newspapers are already non-profits,” quipped one. “I think it's a terrible idea to make that status official.

Papers such as the Christian Science Monitor and the St. Petersburg Times have long operated on non-profit models, but the idea has been getting increased attention as a potential safety net for floundering print publications. Steve Coll, one of the insiders surveyed here, pondered it in The New Yorker in January, and recent non-profit upstarts like ProPublica have been gaining traction. One of our insiders, however, worries about the viability of news as a non-profit endeavor:

Newspapers should experiment with all forms of survival, but I have little faith in the non-profit model’s sustainability. Businesses tend to be better run, and less confused in their mission. Non-profits impose ulterior motives concerning service and altruism that could make news organizations less independent, and more susceptible to ideological pressures.”

Respondents: Fred Barnes, Peter Beinart, David Brooks, Carl Cannon, Tucker Carlson, Jonathan Chait, Steve Coll, John Dickerson, EJ Dionne, Sam Donaldson, Bob Edwards, James Fallows, Franklin Foer, Glenn Greewald, Mark Halperin, Christopher Hitchens, Morton Kondracke, Jim Lehrer, Ruth Marcus, Jane Mayer, Doyle McManus, Dana Milbank, Markos Moulitsas, Dana Priest, Todd Purdum, Cokie Roberts, Eugene Robinson, Tom Shoop, Scott Simon, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Judy Woodruff, Katherine Peters

Nicole Allan is an intern at The Atlantic.
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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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