“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.