The messenger vs. the media
When White House press secretary Scott McClellan gets a question, his answer rarely strays from the Bush administration's script.
By BILL ADAIR
Published March 13, 2005
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
|Press Secretary Scott McClellan speaks at the daily White House press briefing at the White House Tuesday. Click for photo gallery
WASHINGTON - CBS reporter John Roberts had a simple question for White House press secretary Scott McClellan: Would President Bush insist that personal accounts be part of Social Security?
McClellan replied that the retirement program is in financial trouble and that the president wants to work "in a bipartisan way" to solve the problem. But he did not answer the question.
The silver-haired TV reporter tried again: Was this "the red line" that would make or break the deal? McClellan ducked the question again and recited more of his stock phrases. Finally, Roberts got frustrated and said, "Red line? Yes or no?"
McClellan still didn't answer.
In the White House briefing room, there are lots of questions, but not so many answers. Reporters try to grill McClellan, but he deftly avoids their inquiries and recites lines he has used dozens of times before.
The press corps is changing around him. After a recent controversy about a conservative journalist asking partisan questions, the Bush administration and the White House Correspondents' Association are trying to decide who can attend the briefings. In an era when anyone can post a Web log, who is entitled to a press pass?
Last Monday marked a turning point: Eyeing the action from the fourth row was Garrett M. Graff, the first blogger to cover a briefing.
With bloggers joining the White House press corps - a group that already has eccentric characters - the daily briefing may never be the same.
The pecking order
McClellan meets with reporters twice a day: in a quick morning session called the Gaggle and during a formal briefing in the early afternoon. No cameras are allowed at the Gaggle, but they are welcomed at the briefing. The cameras have changed everything.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is your two-minute warning," a White House staffer says over the PA system. Bright TV lights come up. Cameramen don headsets and focus on the podium.
McClellan steps on stage. Behind him is a blue curtain and the familiar sign of officialdom that says, "The White House - Washington."
There is a distinct pecking order for journalists sitting in the theater-style seats. In the first few rows are reporters from the TV networks, wire services and major newspapers. Helen Thomas, an 84-year-old columnist for Hearst Newspapers who has covered every president since John F. Kennedy, sits front and center. She even has her name engraved on her seat.
The room is smaller than it appears on TV. It has only three-dozen seats and a low ceiling.
McClellan, an amiable 37-year-old, wears the Washington Uniform: dark business suit, silk tie and an American flag lapel pin. A longtime activist in Texas politics and a Bush aide since 1999, he comes armed with a sheet of talking points.
He knows his lines. In the past three months, he has uttered the same mantra on Social Security - "We were elected to come to Washington to solve problems, not to pass them on to future generations" or something very similar - at least six times.
The briefing is a game. The reporters bait him with loaded questions, but he doesn't bite. He just says what he wants.
Poker in the press room
Theodore Roosevelt used to meet with reporters each day while he was in a barber's chair getting a shave. He was the first president to provide space for the press in the West Wing. Covering the White House beat was so dull that reporters played a lot of poker.
For decades, the reporters gathered in the press secretary's office for daily briefings. Much of the discussion was off the record.
"You didn't have TV cameras there, so the language could be pretty raw and the talk could be pretty blunt," said Don Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.
As recently as Lyndon Johnson's presidency, reporters could lounge in the lobby of the West Wing, smoke cigarettes and read the Federal Register. It was a great perch to see who was coming and going.
But Richard Nixon's press secretary didn't like reporters lurking there. Nixon had no need for the swimming pool between the West Wing and the White House, so a larger press room was built on top of the pool.
Big change came when the Clinton administration allowed TV networks to televise the briefings. Both sides were supposed to benefit: the cable news channels could fill air time; Clinton aides could talk directly with the people.
But with the cameras always on, the press secretaries became cautious. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President Bush, says he was always careful with his words because "the briefings are on Al-Jazeera, they're on the BBC, they're on around the world."
TV changed the dynamic. "It's no longer just quiet information-sharing by the press secretary and the press," Fleischer said. "It's now a live performance by both parties."
Ritchie said televising the sessions removed spontaneity and made the exchange more formal."In a sense, the press has actually lost some of its access by insisting on it being televised."
Press secretaries have always ducked questions, but McClellan is particularly adept at it.
"Scott is bound and determined not to be the news," said Roberts, the CBS reporter. "Every time he comes out here and he escapes without making news, I think (White House chief of staff) Andy Card pats him on the back and says, "Good job.' "
Many White House beat reporters have gotten so frustrated with McClellan's repetition that they skip the briefings.
"I only go if I have a question I want to ask," said Ron Hutcheson, a reporter for the Knight Ridder news service and the president of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Al Franken, who hosts a liberal talk show on the Air America network, says reporters don't ask tough questions and the briefing is "meaningless. No information comes from it. It's just a dance."
Helen Thomas says reporters should "toughen up, for goodness sakes! They have rolled over and played dead since 9/11. They're afraid to be unpatriotic and un-American."
Reporters say they try to get McClellan to be candid, but he reverts to his talking points. Thomas says he is so scripted he seems robotic.
McClellan takes that as a compliment. It means he's being consistent and following standard practice for press secretaries: The boss makes the news.
He says that's why he wouldn't answer Roberts' questions on Social Security: President Bush does not want to negotiate with Congress through the press.
"The media oftentimes wants to get ahead of the story," he said. "Part of our discipline has been following the president's desire to make announcements on his time frame. That has served us well."
'Chock full of nuts'
You might expect the White House press corps would be an elite group. After all, journalists including Thomas, Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather became famous covering presidents. But the briefing room also features a surprising number of odd characters.
There's Russell Mokhiber, a left-leaning writer with ties to Ralph Nader who asks provocative questions and posts them on a Web site called "Scottie & Me." He asked whether President Bush could be prosecuted for war crimes and whether his support for the Iraqi war conflicts with his belief in the Sixth Commandment - "Thou shalt not kill."
There's Les Kinsolving, a right-leaning radio talk show host who has asked about the president's position on Target banning Salvation Army bell-ringers from its stores and whether Bush agreed with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that state legislators were "girlie men."
Sometimes, McClellan answers. Mostly he dodges or calls on someone else.
The "colorful individuals," as he refers to them, usually sit behind the regular reporters. Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies White House-press relations, describes the back of the room as "chock full of nuts." But she says they sometimes raise issues that mainstream reporters pursue.
With such an eccentric group, no one paid much attention to the man who called himself Jeff Gannon, a reporter for a conservative Web site who attended briefings for about two years. He sometimes asked partisan questions, but that was hardly unique.
At an impromptu news conference on Jan. 26, Gannon asked the president how he could work with Democrats because they "seem to have divorced themselves from reality."
Liberals suggested that Gannon was a plant, that the White House gave him credentials so he could ask favorable questions. It turned out Gannon was a pseudonym (his real name is James Guckert) and that he had posted sexually explicit photos of himself on the Internet.
But there's no evidence the White House gave him favorable treatment - or even benefited from his pointed questions.
"If they were going to put a plant there," said Kumar, "they would have gotten someone who was more effective - and without the baggage. He didn't do them any good."
The episode exposed the White House's vague policy for issuing credentials. The rules are restrictive for permanent press IDs but more open for daily passes. A reporter simply needs to convince a low-level White House staffer that they need to attend and provide their birth date and Social Security number. If they pass a quick Secret Service background check, they're allowed inside for the day.
McClellan said the policy is deliberately vague, to allow anyone from a news organization that publishes regularly. "The briefing room ought to be an inclusive place."
A flood of bloggers?
Sitting in the fourth row last Monday was Graff, the first blogger to cover a briefing. "This post, it seems, marks the first blog from a White House press briefing," he wrote on FishbowlDC.com, a media watchdog site.
The night before his visit, the 23-year-old was so excited that he dreamed he went to a New Jersey shopping mall instead of the White House. He wrote a straightforward account of his day ("It's hard not to feel a little awe sitting in the famous briefing room . . .") and didn't ask any questions. But his presence likely will lead to more bloggers - including some who may not be so quiet.
Ritchie, the historian, said the White House will have a difficult time drawing a line. "How do you establish who is a legitimate blogger so that every 14-year-old boy with a Web page doesn't show up?"
Hutcheson, of the White House Correspondents' Association, wants to keep the briefings as open as possible.
"My general attitude is, it's a public building and every citizen has the right to ask questions of the elected officials," he said. "But if it gets out of whack and people are hijacking the briefing just to make statements, we may have to reconsider."
Graff said bloggers won't disrupt the proceedings. And even if they do, "What's the harm? White House briefings have always included a certain level of grandstanding and theatrical comedy."
Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202 463-0575.
[Last modified March 13, 2005, 10:40:38]
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