How White House Reporters Can Reclaim Their Beat

Tips to "flip the script" and seize control from presidents, CEOs, and leaders of other institutions.

Getty (National Journal)

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post writes today about a trend at the White House — and throughout journalism — that threatens the quality and credibility of news-gathering: Public-relations "minders" are injecting themselves into our interviews with politicians, CEOs, and other policymakers.

Minder madness joins the surge of "background briefings" and the decline of access to decision-makers as evidence that the White House — and other big instititutions — are manipulating the press.  It's that, but it's also something worse: It's evidence that journalists are ceding control when they should be seizing it, accepting canned news rather than breaking it.

Farhi writes, "Almost every officially sanctioned exchange between reporters and the proverbial 'senior administration officials' is conducted in the presence of a press staffer, even when the interview is 'on background,' meaning the source will not be identified by name."

Journalists tend to view minders with suspicion, if not outright alarm. A third party can alter any interaction in unforeseen ways. One White House reporter notes with irritation that minders have sometimes cut off contentious questioning or otherwise interrupted the flow of conversation.

More broadly, journalists see it as part of a larger official effort to shape their coverage, similar to demands to approve quotes before they're published or to keep even the most mundane information off the record.

"If you have a minder there, it sits in [a source's] brain that they're supposed to stay on message," said Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the New York Times. "They're less likely to share something other than the talking points." Having minders around, Baker says, "is obviously intended to control the message. Let's put it this way: It's not intended to increase candor."

Before sharing a few lessons that I learned the hard way on the White House and campaign beats, I should dispense with the caveats. First, anonymous sources are a crucial way to uncover news that governments, corporations, and other institutions seek to cover up. Second, briefings with anonymous sources ("on background") arranged by these entities can occasionally be revealing. Third, not all stories require access to a decision-maker, and conducting an interview with a PR "minder" in the room doesn't have to curb the journalistic experience.

More often than not, however, reporters are crippled by these and other public-relations schemes. We whine and protest, we write editorials and angry letters, but we don't use the full range of journalistic leverage to seize control of the relationship. We don't flip the script.

  • The White House is setting the ground rules for covering the president. Why? Good reporters control the terms of play.
  • Many reporters operate under the assumption that they need the cooperation of a PR spokesmen more than the spokesmen need them. That's wrong. We can do our jobs without so-called flacks.
  • Many editors and reporters are afraid to get beat on a story if they don't play by the PR rules. Flout their rules. Make them fear you.

Back to Farhi's important story. Deep inside it, he tells readers that White House spokesman Eric Schultz declined repeated requests for an interview to discuss the "minder" muddle.  Instead, Schultz issued a statement suggesting the minder operation is in the best interest of reporters and the public — a laughable assertion.

I complimented Farhi on Twitter for his piece, and asked why he published the statement. He replied.

In Farhi's defense, a story about White House media strategy is arguably richer with a canned quote from a White House flack. Farhi made it clear to his readers that Schultz was short-changing them.

Still, I say flip the script. Tell Schultz, "If you want your point of view in my story, return my call." That shifts the leverage. He must decide how much he wants the Washington Post platform. (Pro tip: He wants it badly.)

Some reporters argued that Farhi was obligated to publish the White House statement. Why? Unless the statement suited his journalistic mission — which is holding the White House accountable — why print it?

Schultz's statement was a press release. No news organization publishes every White House statement. President Obama has his own website. Schultz can post his statement there. In my opinion, Schultz should earn the way onto the The Washington Post's site with a simple telephone call.

A "no comment" doesn't hurt your story. But it can hurt the people you cover. (Read this column and ask Sen. Joe Manchin's communications team whether he should have returned my call a week ago rather than hide behind a statement).

It's OK to play hardball. Play fair. Be transparent and honest. But covering masters of the universe isn't, as they say, beanbag.

On the issue of "minders" raised in Fahri's piece, I usually don't object when a spokesman joins my interviews, because I won't let them control it. There is also something to be learned. A decision-maker who needs a PR babysitter is projecting some level of weakness and/or lack of confidence — and I'll inject that finding into my coverage.

But some reporters hate minders. They can flip the script.

Again, this only works if you and your editors agree that journalists set the ground rules, that it's OK to anger your sources, and that this particular story is important enough to demand an interview. If a story is that important and you settle for less, you've ceded control. Worse, you've sold out the public.

There's the problem of decision-makers insisting that they only be quoted "on background" (anonymously), even when the reporter wants the quotes attributed ("on the record"). In such cases, the answer is simple.

Remember, a spokesman gets paid to get his or her point of view in your story. They need you. Don't cede that leverage for anything less than the terms you need to serve your readers. Write a tough story, and they'll call back demanding an update with their point of view. That's when you politely remind them that they're on the record.

What can the media do about the explosion of "background briefings"? Anytime you think one should be on the record, stand up (or speak up) at the start of the briefing and politely inform whoever's in charge that the event in "on the record."  Don't ask. Tell them.

I did this a few times, most memorably during the 2004 presidential campaign when Democratic nominee John Kerry wanted to chat with reporters aboard his plane. He wanted it to be "off the record," which means whatever he wanted to say could never be reported. Years ago, I agreed to similar terms aboard Air Force One with President Clinton, and watched in horror as competitors violated the terms. My editor wasn't happy with me. With that memory, I politely told Kerry that I would be taking notes and filing.

Kerry had a choice. He could chat with us on my terms (a "win-win") or walk away. He stormed back to his cabin, and I got back to writing an analysis of his flailing campaign.

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