Media critic

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

This is the first installment in a new series where Post media writer Erik Wemple answers reader questions about the logistical and ethical aspects of newsgathering. You can submit questions here

Journalist and historian Theodore H. White did his work before the era of email hacking and ubiquitous media criticism. A writer for Time magazine and author of the series “The Making of the President,” White therefore may not have worried too much about including rather embarrassing thoughts in his official correspondence. In 1964, for instance, he appealed to George Reedy, press secretary for Lyndon Johnson, for an interview with the president. “I can assure you that the portrait I have of him now is that [of] one of our greatest political leaders entering on an historic administration,” wrote White, as recorded in the book “Portraying the President: The White House and the News Media,” by Michael Baruch Grossman and Martha Joynt Kumar. “This will remain my portrait whatever his attitude is to me.”

Sounds very journalistic.

White’s appeal is in part a reflection of a more relaxed journalistic epoch and in part a reflection of an imbalance that gives way to sycophancy: There is but one president of the United States at any given moment. There are thousands of journalists, meanwhile, seeking to interview him. Whether it’s a personal connection, an ideological affinity, a promise of positive coverage or some other gimmick, journalists will do whatever they can to score a sit-down with the most powerful man in the world.

How far should journalists go in pursuing an interview with a president? That debate roared recently, after MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were spotted among some revelers at Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve. The New York Times remarked on their presence, sparking comments that the pair had alighted on President-elect Donald Trump’s Florida resort to party. Not so, countered Scarborough. A meeting scheduled with Trump happened to overlap with the Mar-a-Lago fete. The purpose? To negotiate an inaugural interview with the president-elect.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough found himself in the middle of a media controversy after photos showed him at a party with Donald Trump on New Year's Eve. The Post's Margaret Sullivan looks into the pair's complicated relationship. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Or, as the late David Carr would have put it, “To talk about talking.”

As Scarborough wrote in a piece for The Post, his approach to Trump was a two-phased affair. First came a dinner on “background” with the president-elect. That session, however, didn’t include Brzezinski — and that was problematic. Last summer, after all, Brzezinski had questioned Trump’s fitness for office in some rather pointed ways. “She said he had psychiatric problems that needed to be addressed, so when I showed up and she wasn’t there, he said we’re going to have to talk through all that happened this summer,” Scarborough told the Erik Wemple Blog. So another appointment landed on the agenda.

Too much schmoozing? The Post’s Margaret Sullivan says yes. “If newspeople intend to serve the public interest, they do need to maintain professional distance. Call it independence or impartiality,” she wrote last week. In the realm of journalistic ethics, though, calls like this one are squishy matters. Looking at the same set of facts, New York Times Magazine Chief National Correspondent Mark Leibovich emails, “Im not sure exactly what Scarborough was doing, but if he was in Fla to grease the skids for a future interview, that would certainly be legit in my book….I’ve done stuff like that before…”

Scarborough told this blog Friday that he hadn’t yet gotten an answer from the Trump people on his request. Whatever the eventual reply, it’s clear that securing an audience with Trump is quite a bit more complicated than those free-wheeling days of the Republican primary campaign, when he was popping up on “Morning Joe” with great regularity. “Jesse would call Hope Hicks and they would schedule it,” says Scarborough, referring to “Morning Joe” senior producer Jesse Rodriguez and Trump’s spokeswoman. After winning the presidency and consolidating a team of advisers, says Scarborough, Trump “sure doesn’t have anybody around him that encourages interaction with the press.” Especially when cable news proves willing to run segment after segment off of a single Trump tweet.

Presidents do interviews, however, when they have initiatives to push. President Obama used them endlessly: According to a tally by Kumar, the sitting president did 1,070 interviews as of the 7.7-year mark of his presidency, as opposed to 452 for George W. Bush, 302 for Bill Clinton and 438 for Ronald Reagan. (These figures are for comparable dates for each president, except for Reagan. His tally is through Oct. 9, 1987.) A chunk of Obama’s output consisted of sit-downs with media organizations and non-media organizations that never could have dreamed of interviewing a president — indeed, even existing — in previous media ages. Consider this headline from 2015: “YouTube Star Who Drinks Cereal From a Bathtub to Interview President Obama.” Perhaps the YouTube star who drinks cereal from a bathtub would reach the millennials whom the president so desperately needed to enroll in Obamacare, the better to cushion the program’s dicey risk pool.

Speaking of YouTube, former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin has waged a guerrilla-video campaign over the past year and a half to score an interview with the president. He’s up to 313 video presentations. The campaign did include an off-the-record chat with White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz, “but I was pretty forthright about that,” notes Gavin, pointing to his Day 259 video.

Including certain organizations on the presidential interview circuit means excluding certain others. Juliet Eilperin, White House bureau chief for The Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We tried repeatedly over a period at least three years to get an interview with President Obama. We proposed multiple themes, on both domestic and foreign policy, and met to discuss this with senior White House officials. It was a negotiation, and neither side was able to close the deal,” Eilperin writes via email. “It was clear that the White House preferred doing interviews with magazines, and certain specific online-only outlets. They often decided to do interviews on specific topics that meshed with their policy agenda, rather than the sort of broad interviews Obama did early on in his tenure.”

Among the magazines that benefited from Obama’s preferences was the Atlantic. As this blog reported last week, the magazine gobbled up 12-plus hours of the president’s time in 2016, for long-form pieces on his foreign policy (Jeffrey Goldberg) and race (Ta-Nehisi Coates). What did the Atlantic have to do to secure this much time? Not as much as Scarborough. Goldberg tells the Erik Wemple Blog that for his foreign policy story, he pitched the idea to presidential aides, who set up what was supposed to be an off-the-record lunch with the president to address Goldberg’s project. Though he expected a “Kissinger-style” negotiation over terms, access and whatnot, Goldberg got much more, as Obama agreed to go on the record when the two started discussing policy.

What may have sold Obama on the Atlantic — aside from a history talking to Goldberg — was space. The magazine doesn’t blink at running profiles in the tens of thousands of words. “The one thing you learn about interviewing Obama is this guy would be a failure in a fortune cookie factory,” says Goldberg. “He’s not predisposed to answer a question in fewer than three or four paragraphs. … They knew that we could let him ventilate a bit, let him go as opposed to a shorter, maybe newspaper interview.” Nor did it hurt, says Goldberg, that Obama himself was a longtime subscriber to the Atlantic. “He was reading us in print and online well before he became president,” he says.

Scheduling negotiations to discuss setting up a big interview — a la “Morning Joe” — won’t draw any condemnations from Goldberg. “If you’re a journalist and you want a big interview, you fly wherever you have to fly.”

Or you show up when you are summoned. Moving down the ladder of presidential-interview-pursuit exertion, Robin Roberts of ABC in May 2012 found herself sitting face-to-face with Obama for a major news-breaking event: the announcement that he supports same-sex marriage. No lobbying was necessary in this case, as the White House reached out and chose Roberts for the interview. They just wanted her to do it.

“A president needs to feel that there’s something in it for them,” says Kumar.

And in the case of Theodore White’s groveling request for President Johnson, that dynamic wasn’t in play; he didn’t get the interview.

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