These are parlous times for a free press, and any reporter who defends First Amendment values and virtues should be applauded. I’m loath, as a brother in the trade, to criticize Acosta or his motives. But as that subversive British student of free expression Noël Coward once memorably put it: “There’s a right way, and a wrong way; there’s a weak way, and a strong way. Take it easy. Drive with caution when the road is greasy: Wait a bit, wait a bit, Joe.”
The White House press conference was once played out so privately that Franklin D. Roosevelt could shame a hostile reporter in the Oval Office by sardonically awarding him a Nazi Iron Cross. (The stunt still made the papers.) Eventually, the press conference was grudgingly filmed—but with veto power for selective release by Dwight Eisenhower—and finally broadcast live on daytime TV by John F. Kennedy, who wrapped reporters (and viewers at home) around his dashing finger.
But the press secretary’s briefing—long an informal, private affair, once intended for a meaningful exchange of information and facts—has been available for live broadcast in its entirety for just a little more than 20 years, since the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term. On its face, that sounds like progress: independent journalists speaking truth to power, on behalf of—and in front of—the people.
In practice, the ritual has all too often become a circus of reportorial self-expression, and sometimes self-promotion. I should know. I was there, as a White House correspondent for The New York Times in the mid-1990s, and more often than I’d like to think, I contributed to this devolution. I would trudge to the White House from the Times’ bureau in Farragut Square, determined not to ask any questions, because I knew I’d get better answers in private phone calls later in the day. But inevitably, in the middle of the briefing, someone would ask Mike McCurry, the skilled and candid press secretary (who was under no illusions about his president’s faults, but did his best to defend him all the same), a question that elicited a defensive or dissembling response. “Mike, are you saying, from this podium … ?” was a regular remonstrance from Wendell Goler, a correspondent for AP Radio and Fox News. Against my better judgment, my high-school debater’s instincts often drew me to the fray, prolonged the briefing needlessly, and delayed the filing of my story.
On one memorable occasion, during the 1996 reelection campaign, in Kansas City, in an informal scrum of reporters in a hotel hallway, McCurry responded to a question about some now-long-forgotten controversy by accusing his interlocutor of questioning his truthfulness. My hackles raised, I said, a bit too hotly, “Well, don’t ever lie to us, then!” The next thing I knew, the late Michael Kelly, then a correspondent for The New Yorker and later the editor of this magazine, was interviewing me on the press bus, making it clear that he thought my confrontation (which I had thought private) wasn’t just public but newsworthy. That whole long day in Missouri I died a thousand deaths (because, of course, McCurry, in hindsight a figure of Olympian rectitude, had come nowhere close to telling a lie that day) until, finally, in a ballroom filing center in St. Louis, McCurry was gracious enough to take the lead in performing a ritual hug of mutual apology with me. Kelly stood down. My beef stayed private. Quaint? Yes. Valuable? I think so.