December 7, 2012
President Obama
President Obama

The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington is generally forthcoming about her enterprise and its journalism.

Except, that is, when she’s invited to an off-the-record meeting in the White House with President Obama. “Since it was off the record, she’s unable to discuss,” responded Huffington Post spokesman Rhoades Alderson when asked whether his boss could pick up the phone.

The denial prompted an appeal from the Erik Wemple Blog, noting that we merely wanted to ask Huffington boring journo-process questions about merely attending an off-the-record talk with the president of the United States. “Understood but still same answer,” came the response from Alderson

Same kinda gross answer, that is. Journalists make a profession of agitating for openness, for the sharing of information, for speaking with public officials and reporting back. In this case, though, attendees aren’t doing a lot of reporting back. Most of MSNBC’s prime time lineup — Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell — attended the Tuesday session, yet MSNBC won’t talk about it. Two individuals from the opinions section of The Washington Post — Jonathan Capehart and Greg Sargent — had seats at the table but won’t tell a dear colleague what went down. A spokeswoman for Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, another alleged attendee, gave this response: “Since the meeting was off the record, Josh is not available to speak about it.” Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame also allegedly took part and also won’t talk: “Sorry, but I don’t discuss who I do and don’t meet with. Thanks, markos,” he e-mailed to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Now that’s compliance for you. The blackout from these “influential progressives” –  as the White House so boosterishly calls them — raises an historic prospect. Could this be the first White House meeting with journalists in which more information about the proceedings came from the White House than from the journalists? After all, the White House did at least issue this statement:

“This afternoon at the White House, the President met with influential progressives to talk about the importance of preventing a tax increase on middle class families, strengthening our economy and adopting a balanced approach to deficit reduction.”

The progressive influentials were by no means plowing new ground. Off-the-record sessions between journalists and presidents have plenty of precedents. One of them is a 2006 off-the-record session between conservative radio hosts and President George W. Bush. It was “part of an intensive Republican Party campaign to reclaim and re-energize a crucial army of supporters that is not as likely to walk in lockstep with the White House as it has in the past,” according to the New York Times.

Veteran Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty recalls that the Clinton White House had a practice of bringing in beat reporters for off-the-record sessions with the president, as an introductory meeting for those who had just begun covering the White House and occasionally on overseas trips. “The president would bring in new reporters on the beat and have pretty lengthy discussions with six or eight of them,” says Tumulty. That description sounds a lot more innocent than the scene on Tuesday, which, as the White House describes it, sounded like an opportunity to lobby like-minded media types, sans the sort of accountability that comes with being able to repeat what the president may have said.

The enforced silence about what went down in the session only invites speculation, an invitation that this blog is happy to accept. Perhaps MSNBC’s Schultz proclaimed to the president, “We at this table have your back, Mr. President.” Perhaps the president expressed disappointment that these left-leaners aren’t hitting the opposition squarely enough. Perhaps someone mentioned Fox News, and everyone else just sat there shaking their heads. Perhaps the president solicited advice from the group, though a journalist who has attended off-the-record White House sessions in the past says that’s unlikely. “It’s my hunch based on my limited experience that presidents are more interested in explaining themselves rather than seeking advice,” says the journalist. For all we know, the attendees pressed the president to place things on the record, yet they somehow feel bound not to talk about such efforts.

Enough hammering on the journalists in attendance. The real problem here is a president who fears the record, or at least groups of reporters hungry for answers. The oft-cited Towson University Professor Martha Joynt Kumar has compiled numbers documenting the president’s lack of availability when it comes to news conferences and Q&A sessions with reporters. Yet, in fairness, Obama outpaces others in terms of interviews granted. (568, compared to 190 for George W. Bush, 187 for Bill Clinton, 294 for George H.W. Bush and 224 for Reagan over a comparable period).

David Leonhardt, the Washington Bureau chief for the New York Times, notes, “I am not aware of the Times having any on-the-record interview with President Obama since 2010.” There’s no policy at the Times prohibiting discussions with the president that aren’t on the record. Deep background sessions, says Leonhardt, produce dividends that show up in the copy. “I think it leads to richer conversations and richer coverage,” says Leonhardt. “I have a hard time seeing the argument that coverage would be better if a reporter refused to engage in those conversations and the same goes for the president.” Same dynamic holds for other key officials, says Leonhardt.

So stipulated.

Off-the-record Obama cabals, though, still stink, for two reasons. One: If the president says anything newsworthy in one of them, the news is going to find its way out of the room. Of those off-the-record meetings in the Clinton presidency, Tumulty said that after a certain point, “they they became problematic, because details would leak out or one reporter in the room would need something and get it moved on to the record.” A lot of wasted time, in other words.

Two: If the president does not say anything newsworthy, anything worth moving onto the record, what’s the point? A lot of wasted time, in other words.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.