The White House press corps is getting killed. Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post is accusing it of not being worthy of access to President Obama. Commentator Charles Krauthammer is criticizing it for ginning up a big non-story.
That big non-story happened over the holiday weekend. President Obama, on vacation in Palm City, Fla., went golfing with Tiger Woods without telling his media retinue about the goings-on. The situation prompted a rebuke from the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), whose president, Ed Henry, said this, in part: “[A] broad cross section of our members from print, radio, online and TV have today expressed extreme frustration to me about having absolutely no access to the President of the United States this entire weekend.”
The White House countered by saying that weekend access to the commander in chief was consistent “with press access offered for previous presidential golf outings.” In a Tuesday session with reporters, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed sympathy for the access struggles of the media. “I think that it is clear that we are making an effort to provide access,” said Carney after noting that the president had given 591 interviews since taking office.
Few of the commentators who’ve examined the mess have warm things to say about the White House press corps. Let’s just amalgamate their criticisms into one large italicized rant: You pathetic Obama-loving tools—complaining that you can’t get a photograph of the president with some celebrity! Where were you for Benghazi, where were you on drones? This is the straw that broke your backs?
To appreciate the full triviality or the full gravity of the slight delivered to the White House press corps, consider the facts:
*The president and his press following arrived in Florida on Friday night.
*The traveling press contingent stayed in a Holiday Inn Express eight miles away from the Floridian, an exclusive golf-cum-residential compound at which the president was staying, in Palm City.
*Early on, the White House signaled to reporters that there’d be a so-called “lid” on the entire weekend. In the parlance of White House reporting, a “lid” means that there’ll be no news-making events, like a presidential outing for a meal or a meeting with a celebrity or citizens or whatever.
*The traveling pool, accordingly, faced the prospect of hanging out over the weekend at its hotel, not even close to where the (in)action was happening. So the reporters asked the White House to allow them to hang out inside the gates of the Floridian. A bus was provided for this purpose. “The reason that we even bothered with this bus inside the compound is we were all down there: Why not be as close to the president as we could without interfering with him, without causing too much disruption?” notes Scott Wilson, who made the trip for the Washington Post.
*On Saturday, the media pool hung around for a few hours but then returned to the hotel after being assured that nothing was going on.
*On Sunday, the media and the White House walked through the same drill again: By noon, says Wilson, the pool bus was dispatched and delivered reporters to the hotel.
*Later on, the reporters learned what they’d been missing while inside their bus:
The President is arriving at The Floridian range. Awaiting is Tiger Woods and club owner Jim Crane. Historic day in golf. Their first round.
— Tim Rosaforte (@TimRosaforte) February 17, 2013
Rosaforte, of the Golf Channel and Golf World, had the good fortune of being a non-White House journalist in Palm City over the weekend. The White House later confirmed that, yes, Woods was playing a round with the president.
Once the White House reporters learned that this noteworthy round of golf was unfolding, they petitioned the White House to capture a slice of the action. No dice, came the reply. “The pool said, well, clearly there’s a reporter on the grounds and we believe that therefore we should be mobilized….The White House responded, saying you can get on the bus and go to the gates but you’re not getting in,” says Wilson. The authorities made good on their no-access pledge.
Asked about the media-blocking, Carney noted to the Erik Wemple Blog: “The president took a short break to relax with friends and play golf. We treated this particular golf outing as we have almost all of his golf outings – we provided the pool with the names of those playing. The first confirmation of who was in the group came from the White House. This was not a news event in the way his golf outing with the Speaker of the House obviously was. He played golf with a golf pro. That’s it.”
Ed Henry, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, cannot stress enough how little the association’s gripe has to do with golf or Tiger Woods. “This is a particular episode that brought simmering issues to a head. The point that the association is making is that access has been eroding for years,” says Henry, a Fox News White House correspondent who’s speaking exclusively in his capacity as WHCA president. Henry notes that “there was a time around here” when presidents would take a set of questions after meeting with a world leader; that’s not guaranteed anymore. And yesterday, says Henry, President Obama issued a statement on the sequester, then walked away. No one’s saying that he must take questions every time he appears in public, says Henry. But more opportunities are needed: “This is about access and transparency,” he says
The Obama-Tiger Woods media clash has been processed in a Washington manner. Washington-based critics want to know why the White House press corps isn’t making a stink about a bigger issue, like drones or the sequester. Washington-based critics deplore the idea of a Tiger Woods-accompanied round of golf as un-news, frivolity.
Yet no one has argued that the outing would stave off sequestration or resolve the country’s debate on counterterrorism. And when White House reporters decamp to Florida with the president, their mandate isn’t to break big news on the economy or national security while on the trip. They’re there to report whatever news, whatever strand of novelty, they can wring out of a brief spell of presidential leisure. Given those constraints, golfing with Tiger Woods counts as a phenomenal scoop. Rosaforte explained to the world of golf that this was an “historic” event, even though it might not count as such inside the Beltway.
Forfeiting that story — even to an enterprising golf journalist — didn’t sit well with the White House press crew, nor should it.
When should White House reporters raise access issues with the administration? Henry says that no one on the WHCA’s nine-member board dissented from issuing its statement over the weekend. Caren Bohan, the WHCA president before Henry, says that matters of access “arise quite frequently.” She remembers some reporters getting excluded from a session with President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Bali back in November 2011. She complained. And at a G-20 summit in Canada, Bohan grew frustrated that reporters were getting merely “background” interviews with administration officials. She complained. They later got an on-the-record briefing. “I like to think it made a difference,” says Bohan.
The theme that emerges from these clashes between the White House and the press corps is powerlessness. When talking about loss of access, reporters commonly cite tradition and how things operated under previous administrations. They mention precedents and courtesies and the public’s right to know. It’s all another way of saying that the White House is obligated to do essentially whatever it pleases when it comes to media access. Don’t want to answer questions, Mr. President? Okay. If only President Obama were the coach of an NFL team—then he’d have to sit for mandated media sessions every week! As it stands, he’s now less compelled to feed the media than ever before. “It’s just a point of principle,” says Wilson, noting that we’re talking about a “second-term president who has even less incentive to have us around. That’s why it happened this weekend the way it did.”
Here’s a story in the Hollywood Reporter from last June. It’s about a breakfast meeting that President Obama held with a group of youngish Hollywood stars, Jessica Alba among them. According to a White House reporter, the breakfast went down while members of the press were “kept in vans with no knowledge of what was happening.” There was no keeping this meeting quiet, however. As the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Like other young Americans, young Hollywood lives on social media, and shortly after the ostensibly private meeting concluded, participants began sending out Instagrams and tweets documenting the event.” Bohan didn’t approve: “We told the White House we thought there should have been a pool for that event. We learned of it after it took place,” she notes.
Perhaps that experience was among the contributors to the White House press corps’ state of “simmering,” to borrow Henry’s coinage. It’s also a reminder that whoever the president meets with, eats with, plays golf with — it’s automatically news. In the case of the Hollywood eminences, it was news because the president had sustained attacks for his closeness with Hollywood and for being out of touch with the needs of regular Americans.
For those reasons, the Erik Wemple Blog indeed freaks out when a bus carrying the White House press corps is barred from entering the president’s vacation compound. And we endorse any and all official statements slamming the White House over access. More such outbursts should be landing in the inboxes of the Jay Carney & Co.
One other thing, too. Wilson has a word for those who say that Woodsgate proves that the White House press corps cares about golf vacations and drones and the economy: “This was three hours on a Sunday on a holiday weekend,” he says.