The Utility and the Futility of White House Press Briefings

One member of the Washington press corps finally asks a question we'd like to know the answer to: Why bother with daily White House press briefings?

The forced departure of the beleaguered Scott McClellan as presidential press secretary and press corps piƱata has inspired at least one White House reporter to ponder the futility of the daily briefings that made McClellan both famous and infamous.

After nearly seven years of covering the White House for the New York Times, yesterday David Sanger finally asked, “Why continue with the daily press briefings at all?” Writing in the Times’ Week in Review section, Sanger stated something that’s been painfully obvious to most observers for a long time: “[T]he daily press briefings now have less to do with covering the White House than ever, and their value is diminishing every year.”

He also lets readers in on a little inside baseball: “[T]he reality is the briefings have strikingly little to do with how correspondents cover the White House. In a place this buttoned up, reporting happens from the outside in. The first glimmerings of what is happening come from those whose message the White House cannot control easily; members of Congress who have come in for arm-twisting, former White House staff members and advisers, and diplomats, foreign ministers and world leaders who leave the place confused or angry (see: China). The briefing is used chiefly for contrasting what a reporter is hearing with the official version of events, or probing for brittleness or circular logic in the answers.”

As Sanger sees it, things started to go downhill in 1995, when the Clinton administration bowed to requests to televise the briefings. At that point, the briefings became more show biz, for both press secretaries and reporters, and less an exercise in actual journalism. Sanger quotes for Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, saying, “It turned into something ugly that I guess we should have anticipated, but didn’t.”

Whether things will change with the departure of McClellan, writes Sanger, “depends on whether the president wants to explain himself differently. Some of Mr. Bush’s aides … say he has built the kind of press operation he wants.”

For his part, Mike Allen of Time magazine seems to believe that real change may be in the making. He notes that Josh Bolten, President Bush’s new chief of staff and the man who escorted McClellan to the gangplank, “is extremely guarded around reporters, but he knows them and, unlike some of his colleagues, is not scared of them. Administration officials said he believes the White House can work more astutely with journalists to make its case to the public, and he recognizes that the president has paid a price for the inclination of some on his staff to treat them dismissively or high-handedly.”

As chief of staff, Bolten will hand-pick any successor to McClellan, so his own views on how to work the press and how to work with the press may soon be on display.

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.