Do we need a White House press corps?

Photo: From behind the podium in the old White House press briefing room (Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

It was a quiet day in the White House press room until Chairman John Stennis of the Senate Armed Services Committee upstaged President Lyndon Johnson. The Mississippi Democrat told United Press International that the Pentagon now needed as many as 500,000 troops for the Vietnam War. The increase to half a million American soldiers was a landmark, a political thunderbolt in 1968 that would cause an outcry in a nation already divided by the endless bloodletting. Johnson, who struggled to control the flow of all Vietnam news, saw the bulletin on the UPI teletype next to his desk. He immediately confronted the UPI White House reporter, Merriman Smith.

Smith and Dan Thomasson of Scripps-Howard had been lolling in boredom until jolted by Johnson’s rage. In the Oval Office, Johnson was flanked by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The president’s herculean task was to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

“You guys will write anything,” Johnson snarled. “You hear it from anyone, you hear it from Mr. Glutz, your hear it from Mrs. Glutz.”

Thomasson tensed. Smith was having none of it.

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“Yeah,” Smith shot back. “What if it came from Senator Glutz?” The new troop level would be confirmed on March 31, the same day Johnson declared he would not seek reelection. Still, Johnson’s efforts that day to undercut the UPI dispatch riled Smith.

Dismissed but still in the Oval Office, Smith said to Thomasson loud enough for the president to hear: “Are we going to let that son-of-a-bitch lie to us?”

There are few such fiery exchanges with reporters inside President Barack Obama’s White House. Johnson’s exchange with Smith, for example, was the outgrowth of a long and testy personal relationship. On the Air Force One return from Dallas, Johnson dictated to Smith his first decisions as president. John F. Kennedy’s coffin was nearby. “He treated me like I was a member of his staff,” Smith told me later.

 

Obama would be hard pressed to come up with a reporter close enough to exchange anger and curses. If there were a candidate it would be Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, who has been dealing with Obama since his State Senate days in Springfield, Illinois. Obama has overcome his distaste for white-tie-and-tails when Page was president of the Gridiron in Washington. At the media club’s annual dinner, Obama advised Page that as president he should always keep handy his birth certificate. But seven years on, Page has yet to have that soul-baring beer.

“He’s a recluse,” Page said. “Besides his family, I don’t know who he is close to. Maybe his basketball buddies.”

Interviews in CJR inside and outside the White House show a dwindling core of less intrusive reporters, whose numbers continue to shrink along with American newspaper and news magazine circulation. For the most part, they are neglected by Obama. Daily exchanges between the president and reporters—once a staple of the beat—have almost been eliminated, according to research paid for by a fund established in the memory of White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Instead of the James Brady Press Room where sharp questions would be posed to the White House, Obama chose to announce his historic trip to Cuba behind closed doors. For one of the biggest stories of his administration, Obama decided to put the Havana trip announcement in a statement on his very own White House blog. Some veteran journalists view the White House press corps as sliding into irrelevance.

“I’ve never seen the White House press corps so weak,” said Seymour Hersh, dean of Washington investigative journalists. “It looks like they are all angling for invitations to a White House dinner.” When former New York Times columnist Russell Baker was asked for his view, he replied: “What White House press corps?”

 

At the media club’s annual dinner, Obama advised Page that as president he should always keep handy his birth certificate. But seven years on, Page has yet to have that soul-baring beer.

 

On balance, Obama runs a scandal-free presidency. Absent is the turmoil of Vietnam or Watergate that drove White House reporters into adversarial frenzies. A White Houses weakened by, say, a seductive intern, encourages the kind of journalism where reporters set the agenda by focusing on events beyond presidential control. Obama is in the Oval Office early and seems to spend most nights close to Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. Compared to some recent predecessors, the presidential nose is pretty clean.

The withering relationship between the president and the press can be seen through the declining ranks of reporters on important trips at home and abroad. Almost gone are White House press planes, chartered by the government but paid for by news organizations. Once a feature of any presidential travel, there is simply not enough cash available for press planes. Gone, too, is the access to senior staff on such trips who can talk outside the White House bubble. For Obama’s African journey last year, reporters were forced to travel to Frankfurt on their own and then charter a plane to keep up with the president for five days.

To The New York Times’ Peter Baker, who has covered the White House on and off since 1996, the death knell for the press plane came after an Obama Asia trip in 2014. The 40 journalists who followed Obama wound up with a Delta Boeing 777 with 365 seats. Each got stuck for almost $90,000 just for the plane. With hotel bills, transportation and meals, news companies were choking on $100,000 for each reporter.

As a result, only a small rotating group of reporters representing wire services, newspapers, network broadcasters, and big news magazines travel aboard Air Force One. They are charged a First Class fare plus extra fees to sit isolated in a tail-end compartment of the massive Boeing 747. Obama rarely visits. “He comes back at the end of foreign trips, but what he says is off–the-record so you can’t use it,” said one exasperated traveler. The designated “pool” reporter files a report quickly available to the cash-strapped stuck in Washington.

Long gone is the Boeing 707 configuration where pool reporters saw President Kennedy laughing with Chief Justice Earl Warren over Richard Nixon’s 1962 defeat in the California governor’s race. Also gone is the more open and relaxed White House press room inside the main entrance of the West Wing. A massive oak table—a gift of the Philippine government—was covered with camera gear and overcoats. There was a row of telephone booths–the kind used by Superman—for wire services and hard-core newspapers. Presidential visitors had to pass the press gantlet coming and going from the Oval Office. Racing to his booth with President Harry Truman’s announcement that World War II had ended, Merriman Smith slipped on the marble floor and broke his collarbone. He dictated a flash to UPI before seeking medical attention.

 

Calm and civility have replaced this tumult. An examination of 2015 news conferences and briefings shows exchanges between reporters and Obama are mostly restrained and cordial. Reporters rarely jab the president. So it was notable when Major Garrett of CBS News aimed one at Obama’s rib cage. It occurred at a news conference dealing with the landmark agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program for 15 years. Garrett asked a multi-layered question that also raised the issue of Americans held hostage by the Iranian regime.

“As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran–three held on trumped-up charges, according to your administration; one, whereabouts unknown,” Garrett said. “Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation and the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”

Obama cast a narrowed eye at Garrett. “I got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions,” Obama said. “The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails–Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better.”

Indeed, Garrett did know better. With The Washington Post carping daily about their imprisoned Tehran bureau chief, the assumption was that the State Department was bending over to free the hostages. While it sounded like a cheap shot, Garrett’s question finally prompted a public discussion of the hostage issue by Secretary of State John Kerry days later. Obama was mostly silent on the hostages until stung by Garrett. While one remains missing, three other hostages were released the day the West lifted economic sanctions on Tehran’s mullahs.

“I did a lot of soul searching about the question,” Garrett said. “Would it help release the hostages or reduces chances for a release? The fact is I just asked a question. Some might not like it. That goes with the territory.” To Garrett, his job was to dig out details on sensitive issues that the president and his massive communications team are reluctant to discuss.

Complaints about a reporter’s questions were once carried out in heated exchanges between the White House and top editors. Today, such oversight is carried out by social media. For example, the loaded hostage question produced 42 million tweets, according to Garrett. The flow of bile is a turn-off, he says.

Many White House reporters are urged by their employers to use Twitter and other social media to encourage a following and thus gain attention for their work. Reporters deemed too nice or too rude at White House briefings find themselves showered with second-guesses. “It can have a moderating influence,” said CBS Radio correspondent Mark Knoller.

Gone are reporters clearly in the president’s thrall. During Kennedy’s presidency, for example, frontline reporters and their bosses maintained personal relationships that often translated into fawning features. The gold standard for that breed of cheerleader was Garnett Horner of The Washington Star. Both the reporter and the newspaper—once the most important in the city—are long dead. It was to President Dwight D. Eisenhower that Horner addressed the question that caused some of his colleagues to cringe.

“What makes you so popular with young people?” Horner asked Ike.

Few knew that Horner was on Ike’s wartime staff. For his fealty he was given the first post-heart attack interview with the president. But Horner’s behavior continued through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. At the end for Johnson, Air Force One sat unmoved on the runway in Canberra, Australia. Johnson was drinking something other than Fresca. The President’s refusal to give a new destination upset some pool reporters aboard. “Bring them in here,” Johnson told Press Secretary George Christian. In his private cabin, Johnson demanded reporters deliver their complaints to him.

“I guess you don’t like the way I’m running this trip,” Johnson snarled. “Of course I’m only the president of the United States.”

Horner groveled and repeatedly apologized. “We’re very happy and it’s been a wonderful trip,” Horner said. As the reporters filed out, Johnson turned to Christian.

“That Horner is a real kissass,” Johnson said.

 

Knoller’s institutional memory of the place is crucial for colleagues separating the wheat from daily briefing chaff. The veteran reporter compiled facts that drove President George W. Bush up the wall. “When I arrive at the ranch at 10:30 at night, why do you count that as a full vacation day?” Bush complained. Knoller’s careful accounting showed Bush spent more than a year of his presidency—470 days—at his Crawford, Texas retreat.

First at Associated Press Radio and now at CBS, Knoller has been tracking presidents since Gerald R. Ford. Obama arrived with a pledge of unprecedented transparency for reporters, and Knoller’s hopes soared. Today, Knoller finds little difference between Obama and his recent predecessors. “They tell us what they want us to know,” Knoller said.

 

Past presidents have always lusted for control of the White House press corps. President Kennedy came close by cultivating personal relationships with frontline reporters and news executives who became myth makers. Kennedy’s real record emerged almost 40 years after his assassination with the release of tape recordings of secret meetings he had in 1962 and 1963. They showed that Kennedy opened the door to the American war in Vietnam, battled Civil Rights and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and quickly accepted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Johnson hovered over reporters as they filed the news, delighting in catching errors. He called the author of this piece one night only minutes after it moved on the UPI wire from Johnson City, Texas. It reported Johnson’s boyhood home would be opened for “fee” tours instead of “free.” “How’s that going to make me look?” Johnson complained. “Charging to see where I was born?”

 

With the advent of televised speeches and news conferences in the 1960s, Johnson sought to override the filter of White House reporters by directly talking to the voters. As the Vietnam War ate away his approval rating, Johnson was urged by aides to once again go before network cameras. Johnson shook his head. “I can come out once in awhile,” Johnson said. “But those sons of bitches come out every day.”

In some ways, Obama has achieved the long-sought presidential goal of bypassing the White House press corps.

Baker, who covered the White House for both The Washington Post and The New York Times, listed Twitter, Facebook, and other staples of social media as the tools of the president’s messaging. “He can reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily read the basic media,” Baker said.

Obama’s biggest tool may be a team of videographers and deft script writers who instantly turn news into slickly packaged presentations easily downloaded by TV stations and newspapers. Minutes after Merrick Garland was revealed as Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, whitehouse.gov rolled with a three-minute video that rivaled any million-dollar campaign spot.

Slapped on YouTube was “Meet Merrick Garland.” There’s the slight but brilliant jurist dancing with wife Lynn. Cut to beach with the kids clinging to Mom and Dad. “Two spectacular daughters,” Garland said. He’s in jeans with one of his daughter’s in a bunny suit. “They’re very athletic, very smart in math and science. They’re better at virtually all sports than I am.”

A government handout, maybe, but good enough for The Washington Post website. Later that day, the Post even used the same Obama banner: “Meet Merrick Garland.” The New York Times also tumbled for deft presentations on whitehouse.gov. There’s the March 3 video of a young Republican pulled back from the brink of death by Obamacare. “I did not vote for you. Either time,” said Brent Brown, reading his letter to Obama. The Affordable Care Act resolved his pre-existing illness. “I am so very sorry. I was so very wrong,” said Brown, who winds up with an introduction of the president at a Milwaukee celebration of Obamacare. The president and Brown do the NBA shoulder bump. The crowd cheers.

On page A10 of the March 14 New York Times, reporter Julie Herschfeld Davis leads a 600-word feature on Brent Brown’s letter to Obama, including Brown’s confession and introduction of the president in Milwaukee. The article then explains how the White House Office of Correspondence matches letters from voters with Obama trips. The Times used the White House video on its website. It was a flattering account of government propaganda.

 

Major networks and newspapers accepted without challenge the whitehouse.gov claim that Obama has shown more mercy than past presidents toward those unfairly sentenced by harsh drug laws. The administration made the claim when Obama commuted sentences for 61 individuals and met some of them at a Washington bookstore. “To date, the president has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals—more than the previous six presidents combined.”

However, a critical look at Obama’s use of power to pardon and grant clemency and amnesty shows commutations are only part of the story. “Obama has a clemency record comparable to the least merciful presidents in history,” said George Lardner, a former investigative reporter for The Washington Post who is writing a book on presidential pardons. “He has granted just 70 pardons, the lowest for any full-term president since John Adams.” Obama had denied 1629 pardon petitions—more denials that the past five presidents—and rejected 8,123 requests for commutations, a new record.

While The New York Times carried Obama’s version of the commutation record, Peter Baker said that earlier accounts in the newspaper were critical of Obama’s failure to grant more pardons. “It depends on how you count it,” Baker said.

 

‘I’ve never seen the White House press corps so weak. It looks like they are all angling for invitations to a White House dinner.’

 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest is all over whitehouse.gov, playing anchorman in reprising past events on West Wing Week. The sweet-faced 41-year-old joined the Obama press office in 2009 and rose to the top in 2014. A Politico survey of 70 reporters last year won Earnest a high approval rating. “Josh will answer almost any question,’’ said Knoller.

How about a flare-up in a foreign country? A study of last year’s briefings shows there is actually no need to attend the State Department briefings. Earnest routinely uses State talking points to deal with the foreign hotspots. What about the Zika virus and pregnancy? Earnest pulled on his medical scrubs and offered enough advice for a broadcast sound bite.

When it comes to one of the most unusual—and under-reported–policies of President Obama, Earnest goes silent. The press secretary would not discuss with CJR the details of Obama’s intensely personal and detailed participation in the killing of America’s enemies. There are presidential fingerprints on state-sanctioned assassinations through history—Kennedy in Vietnam and Nixon in Chile. Both men distanced themselves from those events by hiding behind the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, and the military.

Not Obama. He personally selects individual leaders of Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups to target with drones and satellite-guided bombs. He has a list of “nominations” from his national security complex. The only comprehensive newspaper account had him fingering through the pictures of the doomed. That was four years ago by Jo Becker and Scott Shane in The New York Times. Neither are White House reporters.

 

According to one veteran White House reporter, the assumption among the press corps is that Obama personally approves strikes on individual terrorist leaders. But none act on that assumption. For example, there was no mention of Obama’s role in the April 1 drone strike that killed three in Somalia, including Hassan Ali Dhoore, a leader of the al Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab.

Digging for reality behind the handouts takes time. But the shift by the media to their own websites increasingly absorbs hours once spent on legitimate reporting. Even wire service reporters with constant deadlines must devote time to video reports that are devoured by local television stations. “I have to multitask,” said Julie Pace of the Associated Press. Baker of The New York Times noted that years ago he filed one dispatch a day. Now, he files for the website, assembles a report for the daily newspaper, and plans for a Sunday newspaper article as well as articles for the Sunday magazine. “We’ve all become wire service reporters,” Baker said. To regain serious reporting time, the Times staffs the White House with four reporters. One becomes the “duty reporter” to handle the flow of daily events leaving three others to dig deeper.

Getting sensitive details out of the White House staff has always been difficult. Russell Baker got his job at The New York Times partly because of his epic account of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for The Baltimore Sun. One of his first assignments in the Washington bureau of the nation’s most important newspaper was the White House. It was a plum that soon shriveled.

“I hated it,” Baker said. “No one would talk to you.” He eventually achieved the Valhalla of talk, the US Senate. Baker learned more about presidential decisions from leaders who did joint press briefings at the White House, he says.

Since then, information out of the White House has only dried up further, and the crackdown on those who dare to leak has grown more intense.

Obama has been criticized for authorizing former Attorney General Eric Holder to go after government employees who leak information to reporters. His administration took on New York Times reporter James Risen and imprisoned a Central Intelligence Agency source. Holder also seized the telephone and cellphone records of the Associated Press’ Washington bureau and its reporters.

To veterans, Obama’s actions are a continuation of a historical and unending struggle over dubious secrets. President Kennedy unleashed the Central Intelligence Agency on Newsweek’s defense reporter, Lloyd Norman. President Nixon had the CIA track and photograph Michael Getler, a national security reporter for The Washington Post. Gratefully, intimidating determined reporters is rarely successful.

Reporter Sy Hersh remembers the Pentagon trying to clamp down on the media during the Johnson Administration. He was required to register with any military officer he interviewed about the Vietnam War. So Hersh registered interviews with several generals just to hide the one source with valuable but classified information. What about the reporters today who complain of Obama’s restrictions?

“They’re a bunch of crybabies,” Hersh said.

This story was supported by the Helen Thomas Fund, in memory of the trailblazing White house correspondent.

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Patrick J. Sloyan covered nine presidents between 1960-2011. He is the author of The Politics of Deception: JFK’s Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba.