We’re All Helen Thomas … For Now

Something unusual happened during Scott McClellan’s White House press briefing yesterday: “talking points” were uttered.

Of course, “talking points” are uttered at each and every White House press briefing.

But yesterday, one reporter actually identified them by name — “That’s a talking point! That’s a talking point!” insisted NBC’s David Gregory as McClellan, speaking over him, coined a new gerund, “blame-gaming,” variations on which he returned to seven more times during the briefing. This time, Gregory and several fellow reporters appeared reluctant to transcribe the talking points and weave them into their reports as usual.

Perhaps the White House press corps, a caged and frustrated group, has been “emboldened” by Hurricane Katrina, as the BBC observed yesterday of the television (and radio and print) reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath from the Gulf Coast. April Ryan of American Urban Radio asked McClellan more than once whether “anyone in this White House know[s] anyone that’s there, beyond Trent Lott, that’s lost a home, that has lost family, that’s displaced?” Another reporter asked if “‘Brownie’ [Bush’s nickname for FEMA head Michael Brown] is still doing ‘a heck of a job,’ according the president?”

Like their TV colleagues reporting from the hurricane-ravaged region, some Washington reporters were, as we wrote yesterday, “telling the news to government, not the other way around.” American Urban Radio’s Ryan told McClellan “it sounds like you are not up to date” and informed him that “people have infection and dysentery already,” while ABC’s Terry Moran had this exchange with the press secretary:

Moran: In addition to help, [people in the affected region] might want some answers, too.

McClellan: And they’re going to get them. But now is not the time, Terry.

Moran: No, it is the time, Scott.

As we noted yesterday, this “new spirit of combativeness” from reporters in New Orleans and in D.C. seeking answers from government factotums is encouraging to see.

What would be more impressive, however, is a Washington press corps that, long after the Gulf Coast has been stabilized, continues to call a talking point a talking point.

Stay tuned. We certainly will.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.