Is Obama Too Mean to the Media, or Are Reporters Just Whiny?

It's mostly the latter.


One of the ongoing leitmotifs of Washington is the White House press corps feeling manipulated and shut out. I mean those reporters who cover the White House as a full time assignment as opposed to say, TV network anchors or national political reporters, who may swoop into the West Wing for an occasional story. For what's considered one of the plum posts in journalism, it's remarkable how often the White House reporters are in a state of dyspepsia.

This weekend those tensions went public when the press corps learned of the president's golf outing with Tiger Woods through a tweet by a Golf Digest writer who had access to the clubhouse at the Florida country where the president was playing. The White House press office seems to have circumvented the "pool" system whereby members of the White House press corps travel with the president to events and is kept informed of his whereabouts. The head of the White House Correspondents Association, Ed Henry told Politico Monday night: "This is a fight for more access, period... I've heard all kinds of critics saying the White House press corps is whining about a golf game and violating the president's privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth."

"We're not interested in violating the president's privacy. He's entitled to vacations like everyone else. All we're asking for is a brief exception, quick access, a quick photo-op on the 18th green," Henry continued. "It's not about golf -- it's about transparency and access in a broader sense."

For its part, Politico ran a lengthy article by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei dubbing Obama a "puppet master" for his manipulation of the press. The two cited a slew of modern techniques that manipulated the press corps, such as denying interviews to top-tier papers like The New York Times and producing massive amounts of content -- photos, stories, and so on -- that budget-strapped outlets might pick up and which would present the president in a positive light. "President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House," they declared. Is this an affront to the First Amendment or whining? I lean towards the latter.

I come at this from a couple of perspectives. I was a member of the White House Press Corps for U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic in the '90s. I covered the George W. Bush White House for Time and was the managing editor for White House coverage when I first came to National Journal in 2010. For what it's worth, I worked with Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, at Time for almost seven years. He and I switched jobs in 2003. I covered the White House with the indefatigable Mike Allen. I have huge respect for the White House press corps. It's a tough and important job and the folks who do it are smart and dedicated.

That said, it's worth keeping some things in mind.

Each White House is less open than the one before. When I started covering the White House in 1993, the press corps was furious--physical access to the "lower press office" where junior and mid-level press aides sit -- had been restricted. (It was later opened up.) There was elegiac memories of Marlin Fitzwater, George H.W. Bush's press secretary, who was claimed to have been more open as opposed to the Clinton crowd who were said to neither understand nor respect the press corps. When I covered the George W. Bush White House for a couple of years, the press corps nursed fond memories of Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry and complaining about Ari Fleischer was commonplace. It's probably worth remembering that the Kennedy Administration, sometimes cited as a golden age of press access, wasn't all that. Would today's press corps want to find itself serving as an intermediary between governments as John Scali of ABC News was during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

"The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post,The Wall Street Journal, Politico and others in years," Politico argues. "These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions." This is a debatable point. The major media aren't at the head of the line anymore but this is hardly news. (For its part, National Journal had a sitdown with the president in the fall of 2010 when it relaunched.)

It's not that bad when the press misses out on a golf game, but it was when the Obama White House let Chinese media into a presidential meeting with the Chinese premier and didn't invite the White House press corps.

Unfortunately, like AARP or the NRA, the White House Correspondents Association, of which I'm a member, feels obliged to take an absolutist line between becoming agitated by a modest trespass and a more serious one. Get rolled on Tiger Woods and pretty soon there are fewer interviews and what not. Stomp your feet over something modest before it gets out of hand. I get it.

As for the other complaints, hey, grow up. One of the beefs with the White House is that they're producing lots of content for media outlets -- especially photos that can be run in newspapers. As my former colleague Brooks Kraft, a Time photographer, notes, "White House handout photos used to be reserved for historically important events -- 9/11, or deliberations about war," Kraft said, allowing "I don't blame the White House for doing it, because networks and newspapers use them. So the White House has built its own content " But for Politico to cite this as master manipulation seems overwrought. If the press corps doesn't spring for an AP photo, that's not the White House's fault.

Look, in a perfect world the president would do more press conferences and have more availabilities. As anyone who's worked in government, as I have, can tell you these moments, while often resisted by public officials and their communications staff, can help hone a president or a candidate, getting them more up to speed on a bunch of issues.

The greater threat from the Obama Administration isn't the usual playing head games with the White House press corps, it's the aggressive prosecution of leaks -- both the leakers and the reporters who get them. I have some skin in the game on this too, having been involved in the CIA lake case that began 10 years ago when I wrote about how the White House was waging a war on Joe Wilson. The aggressive prosecution of leaks, the invocation of once dormant statutes to go after leakers and reporters threatens to shut down real and vital sources of information like the Bush administration's massive domestic surveillance program that took place outside the FISA courts or the use of torture. Ask reporters like James Risen of the New York Times who have been in the legal crosshairs for their role in reporting the important stories of intelligence officials. Those are the things we really need to know. The president's golf score? Oh, please.

Each administration takes greater liberties to spin the news than the one before which is utterly unsurprising. State and local governments do the same. So do corporations

The real question is what's lost in the process. Some but not much, I'd say. The loss or scripted sessions like "read outs" -- behind the scenes accounts of presidential meetings as described by White House aides -- is a loss but not one that would have deterred a Bob Woodward or Ryan Lizza from richly reported accounts of the White House. (Granted they're not in the sealed world of the press corps but the point still stands. Politico notes that the president hasn't granted interviews to some well-known outlets: