At 9:30 am last Monday, New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes began poring through five fat volumes of the just-released federal budget. She had already written two budget reports, one for the Sunday paper, another for Monday’s, and each was waiting in a malleable form on the Times website. Calmes’s first precious hour with the document was spent not writing a budget story, but updating one. And that’s how she’s spent most of the week.
Calmes has been covering the federal budget in some capacity for twenty-six years—her first was under Reagan when she was working at Congressional Quarterly. She has seen the process change, but the basics remain the same. Calmes spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares this morning about how the Times approached Obama’s third budget, sorting through the muck to find the newsworthiest angles, and dealing with those who like to throw stones at the paper for which she works. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Tell me how the details of this budget first come to be in your hands.
The general distribution this year was 9:30 a.m. on Monday and it was embargoed until 10:30 a.m., so you can have an hour to digest it. They also hand you a disc at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning to start looking at it. Frankly, though, I didn’t take advantage of that. If it had been the president’s first year, when everything’s a big surprise, I would have done that. But this year I had a fairly good sense of what was in it from early briefings with the administration. Every administration that I’ve been familiar with has leaked choice details weeks in advance. Then, the actual briefing on the budget overview is held on the days leading into the weekend. They’re geared towards getting weekend coverage before the budget generally comes out on the Monday.
When did the briefings start for this budget?
In this instance there were two of us at a briefing on Friday: two national newspaper reporters, including myself, and two senior officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget. They talked us through the major details and we got to ask questions.
That seems to be a PR coup for the White House.
They get to put their first stamp on the story. But on the other hand, they’ve invited people in who know a little bit about this, so it’s not like you’re going in completely tapped into their take on things. You bring some sophistication to it, and you know the questions to ask.
Is that the only briefing you have?
Fairly late Sunday there were briefings at the White House for more print journalists—there were twenty or so—with other budget and West Wing advisors. They walked us through the major points. I learned a little more but not much more than I had learned on Friday. As we left, there were some broadcast people going in for a separate briefing. There are also separate briefings for people who aren’t journalists at all, people who are influence-shapers, talking heads—the people who they know other reporters are likely to go to for quotes, whether in print or on the air.
In your experience does this White House disseminate budget info in much the same way as its predecessors?
It varies with each administration. I haven’t done it every year but I’ve had a piece of it nearly every year for twenty-six years. It’s much the same every year in some ways, because it’s the government and there is a structure to the budget that is virtually unchanged. The books are very similar. The fundamentals are the same.
Does that also apply to the way you report on the budget? Or have there been changes with technology and the developments of new styles of journalism
What’s really changed about how you do a report on a budget—and I have remarked to people about this this week—is the Internet. Like everything else, you have to feed the beast instantly, and constantly, so you have less time to digest the numbers and the policy implications. It’s one of the reasons you have the administration and the one before it, and I think the Clintons, giving you a heads-up to some of the national reporters. It’s their chance to get the message out and to describe it in their way.