Seizing Control: A Better Way to Cover the White House

Five ways to shift leverage from the government to the press and public

White House Press Secretarty Jay Carney talks about President Obama's meeting with Senate Republicans earlier in the day at the White House, October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government shutdown is entering its eleventh day as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives remain gridlocked on funding the federal government.  (National Journal)

The typical White House reporter considers President Obama's team the most secretive in memory, stingier with information than the tight-lipped Bush White House and, according to a Politico survey, prone to lie. The press corps also is relatively inexperienced, with 39 percent on the beat five years or less, and nearly 60 percent in their first decade.

Most of these extraordinary reporters were never stonewalled by President Clinton's team, deceived by Bush's advisers or bullied by any of their predecessors. I was. Yes, I'm pretty old. With age comes the experience and arrogance required to advise the hard-working White House press corps. Here are five suggestions (confession: I didn't always abide by them while on the beat, but wish I had):

Don't let the White House set the ground rules. Everything a White House official does, says or writes is on the record, meaning it can be reported at your discretion, unless you determine that it's in your audience's best interest to adjust the rules.

Some vital information can only be obtained by granting anonymity. That decision rests with you and your editors alone. It's a rare bit of leverage. Don't cede it to the government.

How does this play in the real world, where reporters are competing for information that the White House jealously guards? Here are three scenarios:

1.  The president storms into the media cabin aboard Air Force One to gripe about his coverage, and preemptively declares the session "off the record." That would mean you can't write or broadcast what he says. But everything the man says is news to your audience. You're a reporter, not a priest. What do you do? You could do as I did with President Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing: acquiesce. I don't recommend this approach (Clinton's rant against conservative media en route to Oklahoma leaked out, as things always do, and I had to explain to an angry editor why I didn't report this important piece of presidential psychology).

Or you could maintain your leverage: Politely inform the president that what he says is on the record. "I'm taking notes, sir, and will file my story before the plane lands." He will protest. His aides and even your fellow reporters will get angry.

Hold your ground. Remind them of the oldest rule in journalism: There must be a mutual agreement to remove news from the record. Don't agree to their terms. Stick to yours. Take your notes and file. (During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry visited the the media cabin of his plane and said he would talk to us "off the record."  I said no; he was on record, and I scribbled in my notebook. Kerry stormed back to his seat and I used the new-found time to finish two projects: a story about his fading campaign and a cold beer.)

On his most recent foreign trip, aboard Air Force One, an embattled Obama whined to reporters about their coverage. Whatever he said wasn't shared with the American public.

2. The press secretary walks into the briefing room flanked by two senior presidential advisers for what he calls "a background briefing." This would mean you can report their claims, but you can't disclose the officials' names. This poses three problems. First, information from anonymous sources carries less weight with your audience than on-the-record material. Second, a government official is less likely to deceive the public when his name is attached to the lie. Third, this is not your first rodeo: you know these officials plan to be on television later in the day trafficking the same talking points they fed you "on background."

You could acquiesce, ceding precious control to the government. You might protest, but that gets you nowhere, because the government has the leverage.

Try this: politely inform the press secretary that you're tweeting the briefing live and on the record. This shifts the leverage. The press secretary now must decide whether to conduct the briefing on your terms or stomp out of the room with his talking points. Either way, he doesn't get what he wants.

3. White House officials overwhelm you with angry emails and telephone calls. At best, they're wasting your time. At worst, you're getting intimidated. Politely remind the officials that every email and telephone call is on the record. Inform them that you think their communications would make a good story. "Is this what the taxpayers want you doing with your time?" Trust me, the abuse will stop. Read here about the last time I flipped the script.

Don't worry about rough coverage hurting relationships and access (actually, it helps). You want to be a fair reporter, somebody who takes the beat seriously and respects (even likes) the people you cover. You also want to be a tough reporter, somebody who government officials fret about. You can be both fair and tough.

Something I learned covering the Clinton and Bush White Houses: A new reporter spends months, if not years, calling government officials and begging them for information. "What are you working on?" Once that reporter starts unearthing confidential information and writing incisive analyses that knocks the government off script, the leverage shifts: Government officials call the reporter proactively to ask, "What are you working on?" That's when the reporter realizes she owns the beat.

A story: I left journalism for about a year to help launch a (failed) startup. Among my partners were several Democratic and Republican consultants, all former White House advisers who met with me one day to plot how we could get positive coverage about our new company. Somebody suggested that we pitch the story to a reporter I won't identify, a name-brand journalist who was known to write favorably, habitually, about his sources. "Not him," one of the consultants said. "Nobody will take his story seriously. Everybody know he's in the tank." Another reporter was nominated, a veteran political reporter who everybody in the room considered to be tough, skeptical and fair. "She's a pain. She probably won't buy what we're selling," a former presidential adviser said, "but if she does, we're golden."

Be that reporter, the one whose respect the White House covets without taking for granted.

Don't go to White House briefings. They're a waste of time. The press secretary rarely makes news and, when he does, the information is a stale commodity; everybody gets it. While your competitors rot away in the briefing room, slip outside the gates and grab a meal or cup of coffee with a potential source, ideally one who doesn't work in the White House. Blowing off briefings is a competitive advantage.

Cover the White House from the "outside in." That's the phrase used by Caren Bohan of Reuters to describe her mastery of agencies and legislative offices disconnected from the White House vault. When Politico asked for tips on how to cover the White House, Jonathan Karl of ABC News said, "By going outside the White House "“ to Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department or the political world."

I used to joke that on any important story, there might be five White House aides who had the information I needed, and if worked my butt off, I might get two of them on the telephone. If I got really lucky, one of those two aides would tell me half the truth. The lesson in that hyperbole is that the White House is a small place with a tight hold on information. The only way to get your arms around the beat is to get your hands dirty in other parts of Washington.

Use the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner to the public's advantage. For my first decade or so in Washington, the dinner was a useful way for me to build relationships with potential sources. The smallest of small-talk helped me better understand them: Are they driven by ego or vanity? Do we have anything in common (a home state or hobby, even) that might build trust?  What makes them angry enough to leak confidential information? Do we have a mutual interest to reveal material to the public? Knowledge like this helps shake loose the information that the public needs to know.

In the last decade or so, the dinner has devolved into a showcase for celebrities and a payoff for advertisers. There are fewer source-building opportunities for the many White House correspondents, gems like Bohan and Karl, who know how to seize control of a beat.

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