By Ana Marie Cox
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Intense interest in the Obama administration has swelled the ranks of the White House press corps. Outlets such as Politico have thrown a basketball team's worth of bodies at the project, and outlets that didn't even exist until recently -- Fivethirtyeight.com, the Huffington Post -- have created their own White House correspondent positions.
Yet too often, the White House briefing room is where news goes to die.
Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent. A thorough debunking of the Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers' State Department and national security correspondents. Bush's abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe's legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off The Washington Post's Metro desk.
Here are some stories that reporters working the White House beat have produced in the past few months: Pocket squares are back! The president is popular in Europe. Vegetable garden! Joe Biden occasionally says things he probably regrets. Puppy!
It's not that the reporters covering the president are bad at their jobs. Most are experienced journalists at the top of their game -- and they're wasted at the White House, where scoops are doled out, not uncovered. The day of a typical White House correspondent consists, literally, of waiting to be told things. Legitimate security concerns and a tightly scripted political world keep the presidential press corps physically corralled and informationally hostage.
Of course, someone has to keep an eye on the presidency. What's wrong with the White House beat is that it's considered prestigious, as though the address the reporters work at makes their work special. I say this as someone who goes to the White House regularly and gets a thrill out of it.
But putting a horde of reporters on the site where the big decisions about the country's future are made is no guarantee of enhanced coverage. Instead of heaping more telegenic reporters into a single White House beat, break up the work among the corps of plugged-in journalists. When the president speaks out on AIG, let financial and labor reporters truth-squad him; when North Korea launches a missile, let defense and Asia specialists assess the White House reaction. Let the beleaguered journalism business prove its worth by providing something you can't get by watching the White House's YouTube channel.
And leave the puppy to me.
Ana Marie Cox is national correspondent for Air America.