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.
Journalists complain the White House press office has become overly combative
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.