Before We Meet the Press Secretary

A chance for all to raise the bar

The new White House press secretary is likely to be announced today or tomorrow. Whoever it is, they will step into an adversarial environment—and that’s as it should be.

An adversarial relationship between the press and their secretary feels almost like a given to those who’ve grown in the post-Watergate era—we kick the ball at the goal, the secretary lunges and blocks to protect his precious net, and we all shake hands afterward and go home. But this was not always the case. In the beginning, we were playing for the same team.

In Woody Klein’s book, All the President’s Spokesmen, Klein describes FDR’s first official press conference, the first ever to feature an official press secretary, Stephen T. Early. As it began, 125 correspondents filled the president’s private office, where “he called the shots, and they wrote down what he said.” Then:

At the close of FDR’s first official press conference, starting at 10:10 a.m. on March 8, 1933, the reporters actually broke into applause—a phenomenon that, according to modern-day historians and reporters, has never happened since.

Compare that to a recent report on Gibbs in the Post:

…answers rarely proved forthcoming, and Gibbs was embarrassed in a briefing when a reporter asked for answers to questions the press secretary had promised, and failed, to deliver on. Reporters complained that Gibbs all but vanished during foreign trips, and several talked about a time when he stood up the press corps, which had organized a dinner at an expensive restaurant with him in Prague. When members of the press corps bumped into him later that evening on the Charles Bridge, he acted as if his no-show was no big deal. (Gibbs later said that the slight was not intentional and that he had been delayed.)

Of course, times have changed, trust in government is down, Watergate and numerous other “gates” have erupted, and those factors, among others, might account for some of the change in tone. But there is also something inherently adversarial built into the role that FDR created and the dynamic he set up between the press secretary and the press, even if it did not show itself during his term. Certainly many press secretaries see it that way.

Dana Perino (George W. Bush) once said: “Spin has become a verb with a negative connotation that basically describes what my job is. I do not necessarily think it is a negative word. My job is to make sure there is the best coverage of the president.” Joe Lockhart (Bill Clinton): “My job is standing up there and the journalist’s job is to poke at the information to test the validity of it. Hopefully, at the end of the day, what they write about what the president says is accurate.” Mike McCurry (Clinton) openly pled “guilty for having overpoliticized the podium.” In a foreword to Klein’s book, Dee Dee Myers (Clinton) wrote:

To begin with, each of us has had to, in effect, serve two masters: the president and the press. Of course, the president’s needs must come first. But to effectively serve the president, the press secretary must also be an effective advocate for the press. And that gets complicated.”

Tony Snow (W. Bush) was more succinct: “The press secretary serves two masters—but not all masters are equal.”

Regardless of who steps into Gibbs’s shoes today or tomorrow, the press will again be the less equal of his or her two masters. This is not as it should be—Helen Thomas was right to remind everyone that it’s us, and those for whom we write or broadcast, writing the press secretary’s checks—but ultimately that’s the system in which they function there in Washington. And the Beltway types seem okay with it.

“I think in any relationship between a government entity and the press, there’s always going to be a combative nature,” NBC political director Chuck Todd told me yesterday. “If there’s not then, the person you’re covering probably isn’t making much news.” Todd, who’s had “a few four letter word exchanges with Robert [Gibbs]” and who has “thrown my cell phone” while on the phone with the press secretary, thought the outgoing spokesman did a good job. Having a press secretary so close to the president was invaluable, he says, and he never once lied to Todd—he just wouldn’t return calls. “A combative nature can be healthy for the process. But if it’s constantly that way it can make everyone look bad.”

As we welcome a new face to the lectern, then, let’s issue a call for a more—not less—adversarial relationship. Let’s kick that ball harder, aim it more sharply. Not to the point of dysfunction, but to encourage the proper function of the press corps; that is, as Lockhart said, to poke and prod. The stakes are high right now. We are mired in an economic crisis that won’t go away simply because the pundits sense an uptick. We are steeped in deficit and the president is trimming around the edges. An adversarial Congress has just plonked itself down and will demand more. And there’s an election coming up. All of which demand answers.

The current press corps does a decent job each day in the part of their role that occurs in front of the camera, nabbing their on-the-record quotes for deadline. And given that we can pretty safely guess at every major administration announcement several days before it is made—including the impending announcement of the new press secretary—they must be doing their job behind the scenes reasonably well, too. But superfluous questions still abound, fixations on the he-said/she-said of Washington debate can dominate, and there is still that obsession with the smallest campaign minutiae, which are ultimately distractions. We may have been disappointed in the last press secretary, and be expecting, and hoping for, someone more to our tastes. But everyone can up his or her amicably adversarial game.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,