MEDIA FEBRUARY 20, 2013
Like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the White House Correspondents' Association typically enters the broader consciousness exactly one day of the year: when it holds its annual dinner. The meal, usually on a Saturday evening in spring, is an overblown Washington ritual in which the press sidles up to power (the president, the famous comedian host, the Hollywood-stars-cum-arm-candy) while simultaneously loathing itself for sidling up to power (the event is a yearly stimulus for concern trolling, on which I’m getting a jump). This year, though, the WHCA leaped into the public eye some two months early thanks to Ed Henry, Fox News’ chief White House correspondent and the president of the WHCA.
Over the weekend, as President Barack Obama vacationed in South Florida, Henry complained that the press pool—the corps of correspondents that travels with the president wherever he goes, taking turns filing reports that other members are free to crib—was not allowed into the clubhouse of the golf course where Obama was playing with a few notables, including Tiger Woods. Meanwhile, somebody from Golf Digest apparently gained access. On behalf of the WHCA, Henry expressed “extreme frustration” at the lack of “transparency.” All that was missing was a “greens with envy” pun.
Henry has already been forced to clarify his statement, as even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer mocked the WHCA’s outrage on Henry’s own network. This is not simply about a golf outing, Henry insisted. “This is a fight for more access, period.”
Henry's wasn't the only Beltway media gripe of the week. Yesterday, Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen pointed to the episode as proof that “the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government.” In addition to the great golf-course exclusion scandal, the story cited the administration's inclination to tweet and write blog posts and such. “This is an arguably dangerous development,” the article (itself a masterwork of concern trolling) continued, “and one that the Obama White House—fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press—has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.”
Now, there are plenty of very legitimate reasons to beat up on the Obama administration for its attitude towards transparency, like prosecutions of leakers or dubious invocations of national security. Compared to these sins, the gripes of Henry et al seem to be different not just in degree, but in kind. If the administration's high-handed approach towards the traveling press is ill-advised—someday it might be useful to have the pool folks on your side—it's hard to see it as an affront against democracy.
The fact that the outrage focused on a golf outing is not just accidental. Given the type of coverage White House correspondents usually provide, it's a telling detail. Nicholas von Hoffmann had this to say about the White House beat in The New Republic back in 1982: “These rooms, jammed with carrels that a graduate student would find confining, these rooms to which young reporters hope some day to be assigned, which the public regards as the pinnacle of the profession, are where some of the dullest chores of the news business are routinely performed. It is a step up, but not a big one, from writing out obits dictated by undertakers on the telephone.”
Not much has changed, apparently, even in the age of social media: On Monday, a pool report reader would have learned such scintillating details as, “the president emerged from the helicopter a couple minutes later wearing a white shirt, dark green slacks, and a long black coat”; this reader then would have been told, perhaps sardonically, that “the president’s return was open-press.” The pool matters because every now and then something enormous happens that makes even a press-pen view of the president's real-time activities notable: Think of September 11, 2001, when reporters found themselves aboard an Air Force One escorted by fighter jets (and when the earlier photo-op of the president reading My Pet Goat was suddenly rendered relevant). But much of the time, it's drudgery. Living in a world where reporters spend hours in far-flung holding rooms waiting to shout questions at passing officials, it's no wonder people were frustrated by being excluded from a golf outing while some newshound from Golf Digest got the scoop (“scoop”).
Access is overrated. From Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky, White House correspondents have not been the primary journalists breaking Oval Office scandals. Non-pool reporters have broken many of the big stories of the Obama era, even in spite of a White House that may be more opaque and vindictive about leaks than any that have come before it. The New York Times’ Scott Shane and Charlie Savage have uncovered far more questionable exercises of power on Obama’s part (on drones and on bypassing Congress, for example) than that same paper’s White House correspondent, Peter Baker.
That's no accident. The nature of a White House correspondent’s job is largely to do process stories, to offer insight on the administration's thinking—important stuff, but usually different from the kind of digging that reveals heretofore unknown things. A significant part of the difference: This work often depends on the cooperation of White House officials, who may sometimes want to dribble out information, and may other times want to keep mum. Actual sit-downs with Obama—like the one my bosses did last month—may offer an interesting peek into the chief executive's mind, something very valuable in a democracy. But even a not-so-savvy reader knows it's only a peek, and only a peek at what the president is either prepared to expose or accidentally motivated to let out.
“The president’s day-to-day policy development—on immigration, on guns—is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it,” wrote VandeHei and Allen of the White House correspondents. True, it is opaque to the correspondents, but reporters not so controlled by the president’s press secretary have been able to gain access to internal policy machinations on subjects ranging from counterterrorism to the economy.
In this current dustup, the WHCA comes across as a self-enforcing cartel jealously guarding its turf—turf which isn’t, technically, its own to guard. Maybe this is why VandeHei and Allen—both of whom, incidentally, were White House correspondents at the Washington Post—saw no problem with conflating this small, specific segment of the press with, just, “the press”: They once drank the Kool-Aid, too. While it is not difficult to get on the email list to receive those all-important pool reports, they are conspicuously not made available online to the general public (and when the White House offered to put them online, the WHCA freaked out, citing fear of alterations—which may be legitimate, but should have prompted the WHCA to put them online itself). News organizations’ desires to join the WHCA are inevitably met with self-important handwringing. When The New Republic offered to take one subscriber to last year’s dinner, it was informed that such a “raffle” violated WHCA rules.1
At the risk of violating those rules again, here is an immodest proposal for Henry and other members offended by the administration’s treatment: Boycott the annual dinner. It is the most (and only) high-profile night of the year for the WHCA, so the gesture would undoubtedly get attention. Plus, it would place the White House correspondents, for once, outside the control of Obama’s overly controlling press office—which, so they tell us, is the only way they can truly correspond.