In the Reagan years, I had a number of friends who in their early 30s had already ascended to one of the peaks of a journalism career: White House correspondent. All three of them told me it was the worst assignment of their professional careers, a kind of gilded cage. Two were in print; one a leading producer for a network. (Interestingly, none were television journalists; any frustration in that job seemed to be offset by increased airtime, the most valuable currency in their profession.)
My friends told me that they were placed in the cage of the press room and fed daily dry morsels of pre-packaged news. They spent their other hours “enterprising”: talking to sources, looking for leaks, trying to find real news, which at the White House, as the saying goes, is rarely on the record.
But even much of these efforts were frustrating. The leaks were often more about one official seeking advantage over another in the West Wing pecking order. Or a story was fed to a reporter as an exclusive to help gain more prominent placement, despite the reporter knowing that, at best, this “using” arrangement was mutual. And, if reporters came upon news that the White House did not want to see, it simply put them in the “penalty box” and told them they were “out of business.” The word went out that no one was to return any calls to the offending journalists for a while, and in the meantime, maybe a few choice stories would be fed to a chief rival. Editors were rarely understanding. That’s why when reporters got hold of real news, like Iran-Contra or Monica Lewinsky, their reaction was feral. They were starving for something real, and perhaps for payback.
I thought of all this when I read of the current press corps’ frustration with the Obama administration to bypass and marginalize them. Yes, the tools to avoid real questions and to shape the news are getting more and more sophisticated; Bill Clinton had Arsenio Hall and more friendly local press he could satellite to; Barack Obama has Twitter and Reddit.
The relationship between the White House press corps and the administrations it covers needs to change. It isn’t a fair fight, and it hasn’t been for more than 30 years. Instead of seeing itself as a co-equal, the press should accept that on the White House playing field, the president, literally and figuratively, has all the guns. But instead of surrendering, the press should engage in asymmetric warfare. Instead of putting its best and brightest at the White House, beef up Congressional coverage and the proceedings at the departments and the agencies. Send interns to cover the daily press briefings; refuse to cover purely staged events; rely solely on a pool feed. Make the White House come to you. Right now, they take you for granted, or just go around you. Don’t be complicit in making yourselves irrelevant.