“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.