Who’s Undercutting Obama?

For the moment, at least, it’s his press office

It’s 3 p.m. and the phone in the White House press secretary’s office is ringing. It rings and rings and rings. Eventually, a recorded voice asks callers to leave a message—followed by a second voice saying the voicemail box is full.

After a full week of such calls, a human being answers. But Ben LaBolt immediately bristles when asked to spell his name, refuses to give his job title, and says he is going “off the record” until I stop him to explain that the reporter grants that privilege, not the other way around—a basic journalistic standard that LaBolt seems unaware of. He soon hangs up without even hearing what I called to ask about.

A return call is answered by Priya Singh, who spells her name when asked, but does not know (or will not say) what her job title is and several times describes requests for information about how the Obama administration press office is operating as a “complaint” which she would pass on. She says she is not authorized to comment, though she at one point tells me she is a spokesperson.

This might be the simply the problems of a new administration struggling to cope with a flood of calls and perhaps the complex machinery of the modern office. But it might also indicate that President Obama’s messages about open government have not reached press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff.

While it is too early to judge just how this will work out, the early signs are troubling. And interviews with a dozen Washington reporters indicate that the Obama press operation tends to embrace friendly questions, while treating skeptical questions as not worth their time or, worse, as coming from an enemy.

I have called 202-456-2580, the main number for the White House press office, going back to the Nixon administration. Never has anyone in the press office declined to spell his name, give his job title, or hung up, even after the kind of aggressive exchanges that used to be common between journalists and flacks—and between journalists and high government officials, for that matter.

Former White House press secretaries, in interviews this week, said they would cut the office some slack. Each gave different reasons, from the complexity of modern office equipment to needing time to hire a full staff. Still, former press secretaries Ari Fleischer (George W. Bush), Joe Lockhart (Clinton), Jody Powell (Carter), and Ron Nessen (Ford) all said that they could not imagine any reason to refuse to give job titles or take umbrage at being asked to spell a name.

“I do have a lot of sympathy of them,” Fleischer said. “It is very difficult to come in and hit the ground running; it’s all new.”

While each of these former press secretaries thought some settling-in time was needed, none felt it should last more than a week or so.

Dana Milbank, the Washington Post reporter whose perceptiveness and independence infuriated the Bush White House, said he had seen problems in the new press office, but felt they were mostly due to getting a slow start (unlike the rest of the Obama operation). “If it goes on for a longer period of time,” Milbank added, “that view is subject to amendment.”

I worry that Milbank may be forced to do just that. My questions to LaBolt and Singh prompted a return phone call the next day from Nick Shapiro, who spelled his name, but had to be prodded several times to give his job title: assistant press secretary.

During our brief conversation, Shapiro, like LaBolt (whose name Shapiro did not recognize), started one sentence with “off the record.” Told that the journalist grants the privilege, and that none would be granted here, Shapiro expressed surprise. His surprise was double-barreled, at both the idea that the reporter issues any privilege and that any reporter would decline to talk “off the record.”

The reportorial practice of letting government officials speak without taking responsibility for their words has been an issue with the public and is being questioned now by some journalists, as shown by this article from Slate’s Jack Shafer.

Questions about whether Shapiro knows the difference between off-the-record, background, deep background, and on-the-record did not get asked, because Shapiro made it clear he had no interest in answering anything about how the Obama press secretary’s office is operating and what its tone will be. He said questions should be submitted in writing by e-mail to nshapiro@who.eop.gov. I sent Shapiro an e-mail outlining the contours of what would be covered in an interview, but have not received a response as of this writing, the following day.

Shapiro did say that there are press office numbers to call beside 202-456-2580, which has been the main White House press office number for decades. “You should have used one of them,” he said.

And those numbers are? Shapiro said these numbers would be made public soon. (Thoughts of the illogic made famous by Kafka, Catch-22, and Lewis Carroll’s King of Hearts come to mind here.)

But there is more to this than just the answering, or not answering, of telephones and questions.

The previous administration sometimes edited White House briefing transcripts to polish the record. Bloggers, and some working reporters, compared the transcripts to the video and audio to prove this kind of ham-handed disrespect for empirical facts.

The Obama administration is also editing briefing transcripts. So far it posts only snippets of some White House briefings at whitehouse.gov. Shapiro promised that would be corrected soon.

Politicians make choices and have to live with them. How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.

Talking to working reporters is not the only way to communicate with the people. The Obama administration seems to be embracing direct delivery of its messages via the whitehouse.gov website and YouTube. They seem to be saying “We don’t need the press to communicate our messages to the people. We can talk to the people ourselves.”

That’s entirely appropriate. But it doesn’t mean that the press should be cut out of the loop—for one thing, most Americans still get their news via traditional sources. So far the Obama administration appears to be treating its political opponents with more grace, and smarts, than journalists.

As of now the Obama press office is effectively, if perhaps unintentionally, working against President Obama’s campaign promises of change and transparency. Will that change? Will the disdain of the Bush years give way to open government that understands, and appreciates, society’s watchdogs?

We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for Gibbs, or someone with authority to speak on the record, to call me back for that interview I wanted to start with—and now for a second one about how the White House press office operates. You can reach me at 585-230-0558.

Update, February 1: Transcripts of the daily briefings are now up at the new whitehouse.gov Web site. Despite another nudge on Friday, the White House press office has yet to get back to David Cay Johnston.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.