Journalists complain the White House press office has become overly combative
By Paul Farhi,
The White House’s relationship with the reporters who cover it has blown hot and cold throughout history. And this year, some reporters say, things have taken a decidedly frosty turn.
When a reporter gets something wrong or is perceived as being too aggressive, the response is often swift and sometimes at top volume, reporters say.
“They shoot first and ask questions later,” said Julie Mason, who has reported on the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses for the Houston Chronicle, the Washington Examiner and Politico. In one of the e-mails that reporters have dubbed “nastygrams,” White House press secretary Jay Carney branded one of Mason’s stories “partisan, inflammatory and tendentious.” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, reacting to comments Mason made in a TV discussion, sent her an e-mail that included an animated picture of a crying mime — a visual suggestion that she was whining.
“They don’t seem to realize or care that [e-mails sent from the White House] will become part of the official archives of the presidency,” says Mason, who last month became host of a national talk show about politics on Sirius XM Radio.
The relationship between reporters and the White House is typically adversarial and, therefore, often marked by sharp exchanges. Richard M. Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, beset by scandal, engaged in hostilities with the media. Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry sometimes went over reporters’ heads and complained to their bosses, as did Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer. Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes once questioned the patriotism of reporters who asked uncomfortable questions.
And now it’s Carney’s turn.
Carl Cannon, a longtime political journalist who is the Washington editor of the Web site Real Clear Politics, says he recently got zinged. After his site posted a headline and video of President Obama promoting a political fundraising raffle at the White House in June — which Republicans said could be a violation of campaign-finance law — Cannon heard about it in no uncertain terms. A deputy press official let loose “a screaming, profane diatribe that lasted two or three phone calls,” Cannon recalled. “It hurt my ear.”
Carney says his and his staff members’ interactions with reporters are as “professional” and businesslike as those of any of his predecessors, and often a good deal better than some of them. As for profanity, he said that comes with the territory. As a Time magazine reporter covering the White House, he said in an interview, he was often on the receiving end of profane reviews of his work by officials in the Clinton and Bush press offices.
Reporters’ criticism of his office “is pretty thin,” he said. “Where have you been? . . . You’re kind of discovering that the wheel is round here.”
White House reporters often grumbled about their chilly relations with Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Some reporters thought he was aloof and unresponsive. They had high hopes that Carney, a former journalist who had been Vice President Biden’s spokesman, would understand the daily pressure of covering the White House.
The always-brittle relations between the media and administration spokespeople briefly flared into public view early this fall when a CBS reporter, Sharyl Attkisson, said she was dressed down first by a Justice Department representative, Tracy Schmaler, and later was “screamed” at and “cussed” out by a White House spokesman, Eric Schultz.
Attkisson, who was reporting on the government’s controversial “Operation Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program, took the unusual step of describing the two encounters on Laura Ingraham’s radio program. That inflamed the situation further; some on the White House communications staff thought Attkisson was playing to Ingraham’s conservative listeners. Schultz declined to comment for this article, and Schmaler could not be reached.
Attkisson also declined to comment. The incident was one of several raised last month in a meeting between representatives of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) and Carney’s office. WHCA President Caren Bohan, a reporter for Reuters, said the discussion grew out of a series of “tense interactions” between the two sides.
Although she would not provide specifics, Bohan said the discussion was prompted by reporters who had complained about their dealings with media officials. Speaking generally, she said, “There are sources you have interactions with where it can get heated and there are others where that doesn’t happen that often.”
Carney maintains that it’s mostly the latter. “It’s not always a ‘Mister Rogers’ script, but we have good, very cordial” relationships with reporters, he said. “Obviously, we’re going to tell people what our view of things is.”
Several reporters interviewed for this article agreed with Carney’s assessment.
“My basic take is this is a contentious profession, especially in [the White House] beat, and there’s a lot of back and forth that goes on in private conversations,” said Jake Tapper, the senior White House correspondent for ABC News. “But I have never felt they went beyond the pale. I have a thick skin, and they do, too.”
Glenn Thrush, who is a reporter for a Web site and Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, said his encounters have been far more mild than what he experienced as a reporter covering New York City politics for Newsday.
“Coming from a New York tabloid background, having a flack speak to me in an elevated tone does not make me crawl under my desk,” he said. “It does not terrify me to have someone raise their voice occasionally. The expectation in covering the White House is that it’s always going to be about using the good china. Sometimes this is about paper plates.”
But others have been brought up short by the tone of their interactions when something displeases the communications staff. Half a dozen reporters contacted for this article described censorious e-mails or phone calls from Carney or his staff members that they characterized as heavy-handed. The reporters declined to speak for the record out of concern that doing so would further harm their relations with the White House.
Despite the blunt approach, no one on Carney’s staff has cut off access or otherwise frozen out a beat reporter. George Condon, who has covered the White House since the Carter administration, recalls that Speakes openly berated reporters during briefings.
But Condon, who writes for the National Journal, also says some of the interactions he has witnessed make this White House “different to a degree than what I’ve seen from earlier White Houses.” After a colleague wrote a column that was critical of Obama this year, he was hammered by e-mailed criticism from media officials, even though the president and much of his communications staff were in London at the time, Condon said.
Some of the missives are “strongly worded,” said Condon, who added, “I think they’d be better off to count to 10 before hitting the send button.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies the relationship between the White House and the media, said she has noticed “increased acrimony” in e-mail exchanges between reporters and White House communications employees since the Bush administration. Kumar, who received copies of the e-mails from reporters, says she has been particularly struck by the language, which has become “sharper and more confrontational, and more angry” over time.
But she said the deteriorating tone isn’t necessarily a reflection that relations are growing worse. Rather, it may be because people feel more comfortable communicating via e-mail and using profanity, she said. In an earlier era, the same interactions may have taken place over the phone or in person, with no record of them.
At the same time, she said, the news media are changing, with more deadline pressure and a constant demand for information. At the White House, “you’re dealing with people who are working very long hours. I think everyone is under enormous pressure, and that can lead to frayed tempers and misunderstanding. You put down things you can’t back away from later.”
Cannon and other reporters are convinced that the tough language and immediate response is part of a strategy. “It’s clear to me that [Obama’s media operation] looks at the press differently than anyone who was there before. The majority of reporters are trying to play it straight and get the story right, but they divide the world into two camps — they either favor you or try to punish you, depending if they see you as friend or foe.”