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 email@example.com. 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.