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Posts Tagged ‘White House Press Corps

WaPo: For Obama, a changed tone in presidential humor

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Paul Farhi of the Washington Post had a great insight on last night’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in that President Obama, for the second year in a row, would not target himself as a butt of his own jokes. Other presidents have often used the event to diffuse ongoing political tensions.

Except for a mild joke pegged to his falling approval ratings, Obama mostly spared Obama during his 14-minute standup routine. (The jokes were unofficially credited Sunday to Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor.)


Obama’s derisive tone surprises and dismays some of the people who’ve written jokes for presidents past.

“With these dinners you want the audience to like you more when you sit down than when you stood up,” says Landon Parvin, an author and speechwriter for politicians in both parties, and a gag writer for three Republican presidents (Reagan and Bushes I and II). “Something in [Obama’s] humor didn’t do that,” he said Sunday.

Parvin advises his political clients to practice a little partisan self-deprecation when they make lighthearted remarks: “If you’re a Democrat, you make fun of Democrats and go easy on the Republicans; if you’re a Republican, you do the opposite,” he says.

Presidents past have generally hewed to that tradition, even when they were under intense criticism or were deeply unpopular.


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May 2, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Gibbs: Nobody at Fox Is a Journalist; It’s Not a News Organization

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White House officials once again advanced its contention that Fox News and its commentators are not journalists, rather a propaganda wing of the Republican Party. During the gaggle, an informal on-the-record but off-camera briefing between the White House press secretary and some members of the media, Robert Gibbs and ABC’s Jake Tapper had this conversation:

Tapper: It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations “not a news organization” and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one –


Gibbs: Jake, we render, we render an opinion based on some of their coverage and the fairness that, the fairness of that coverage.

Tapper: But that’s a pretty sweeping declaration that they are “not a news organization.” How are they any different from, say –

Gibbs: ABC –

Tapper: ABC. MSNBC. Univision. I mean how are they any different?

Gibbs: You and I should watch sometime around 9 o’clock tonight. Or 5 o’clock this afternoon.

Tapper: I’m not talking about their opinion programming or issues you have with certain reports. I’m talking about saying thousands of individuals who work for a media organization, do not work for a “news organization” — why is that appropriate for the White House to say?

Gibbs: That’s our opinion.

I wonder if Major Garrett, Fox’s White House correspondent, was in the room. reported that Michael Clemente, senior vice president of news at FOX News, replied by saying: “Hundreds of journalists come to work each day at FOX News all deeply committed to their craft. It’s disappointing that the White House would be so dismissive of their fine work and continue their vengeful war against a news organization.”

Brett Baier of Fox reported on air today that Clemente said: “Surprisingly, the White House continues to declare war on a news organization instead of folk focusing on the critical issues that Americans are concerned about, like jobs, healthcare and two wars. The door remains open and we welcome a discussion about the facts behind the issues.”

Ruth Marcus, who writes for the PostPartisan blog at the Washington Post, had this to say this morning:

Sure, it’s legitimate — and standard practice — to dispense access and coveted interviews to favored reporters and news outlets. So is subtly doing the opposite: letting a reporter who’s filed a tough story know that he or she is in the doghouse by leaking a scoop to a competitor. The Bush administration routinely briefed conservative columnists before a big presidential speech; the Obama White House tends to call in ideological sympathizers. This is the way the game is played.

Where the White House has gone way overboard is in its decision to treat Fox as an outright enemy and to go public with the assault. Imagine the outcry if the Bush administration had pulled a similar hissy fit with MSNBC. “Opinion journalism masquerading as news,” White House communications director Anita Dunn declared of Fox. Certainly Fox tends to report its news with a conservative slant — but has anyone at the White House clicked over to MSNBC recently?

That statement, in turn, brought a quick rebuttal from the left. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters writes:

In a way, Marcus is simply reinforcing the age-old Beltway truism: When Democrats criticize the press it’s whiny and petty, but when Republicans do it, it’s savvy and brash. (Just ask veterans of the Clinton administration.)

But more specifically, Marcus is commenting on a media landscape of which she is completely ignorant. For instance, she claims Fox News operates just like MSNBC did during the Bush years. MSNBC featured Bush bashers Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, and today Fox News boasts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so c’mon what’s the big deal. I guess the big deal is I don’t remember either Olbermann or Maddow comparing MSNBC employees to persecuted Jews during the Holocaust, which was the twisted comparison Beck recently made regarding the Fox News staff.

In other words, I don’t recall Olbermann or Maddow going bat shit crazy on national television, scribbling away on a chalkboard as they fantasized about connecting George Bush to every conceivable strain of historical evil. And I don’t remember either MSNBC host launching hateful and hollow witch hunts against semi-obscure administration officials, the way Hannity has latched onto the homophobic attacks against Kevin Jennings.

But guess what? The same elite pundits who are telling the White House is chill out over Fox News are the same elite pundits who for weeks have refused to acknowledge the hateful Jennings witch hunt. Which brings me back to my original question: Do journalists like Marcus even watch Fox News? Do they understand what its programming day now looks like? My guess is the answer is no, even though lots of them have taken it upon themselves to speak out as Fox News experts; to lecture the White House about how normal and mainstream the cable outlet is.

Josh Gerstein and Mike Allen of POLITICO write today that the White House effort is to get other journalists to think twice before following Fox’s stories in their own coverage.

“We’re doing what we think is important to make sure news is covered as fairly as possible,” a White House official told POLITICO, noting how the recent ACORN scandal story started because Fox covered it “breathlessly for weeks on end.”

“And then you had a couple days of breast-beating from The Washington Post and The New York Times about whether or not they were fast enough on the ACORN story,” the official said. “And it’s like: Wait a second, guys. Let’s make sure that we keep perspective on what are the most important stories, and what’s being driven by a network that has a perspective. Being able to make that point has been important.”

That raises a red flag to me. Are journalists supposed to take the White House’s lead as to which stories they should cover? Aren’t the Post and Times capable of deciding for themselves what stories need to be chased and what is nonsense? This is a judgment call made by assigning editors every day. For instance, the birther stories are rightfully ignored by most journalists because they are blatantly absurd. Sometimes it seems, only Chris Matthews is keeping that one alive. But the ACORN story, even though being instigated by a conservative filmmaker, was news because of the videotapes that could not be ignored.

It’s up to journalists to decide what they should cover, and at no point should they take their lead from the White House, whether it is occupied by a Republican or a Democrat. And if White House officials think its their role to determine for the national media what the important stories of the day are, then we are all in a lot of trouble.

And finally, for those who are interested in signing petitions. has started one urging Democrat members of Congress to stay off the network as long as the president avoids appearing on it.

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October 20, 2009 at 4:34 pm

White House Bans Press From Award Ceremony by News Group for Obama

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See if you can discover the irony here.

President Barack Obama was scheduled receive an award for “Newsmaker of the Year” from the National Newspaper Publishers Association this afternoon. He was scheduled from the federation of black community newspapers in a ceremony at the White House.

But the press is banned from covering the event.

The president’s official schedule states:

“Later in the afternoon, the President and the First Lady will attend a reception with the National Newspaper Publisher Association in the State Dining Room, where they will be presented the Newsmaker of the Year award. This event is closed press.”

Why would any news organization even participate in a ceremony that bars the press? So much for transparency. Maybe there is a reason?

Well, there appears to be a quid pro quo involved. FOX News is reporting that Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, has told it that Obama’s reception is a “special access” event that the representatives of African-American community newspapers will cover as participants, and as such is not open to daily White House reporters.

The trouble with that is the normal journalistic standard would be that participants not cover themselves in any kind of events. That’s what public relations directors are for.

Stories of the event, Earnest told FOX, will be published in African-American community newspapers across the country and in that sense the event will be “covered.”

Well, covered by participants, who have an interest in positive coverage. Why not skip the middle man and have Robert Gibbs write the copy?

Earnest also said the White House says the National Newspaper Publishers Association is giving the award to the president and is therefore being given its own event because of its historical focus on African-American issues.

For its part, the National Newspaper Publishers Association has not commented on its lack of knowledge of how a news organization is supposed to operate. It’s bad enough when corporations and government hide behind close doors, it’s worse when the very groups that are entrusted to advocate on behalf of the public for more transparency participate in such antics.

I would not, by the way, expect much concern from the usual mainstream media. Now, if President George Bush had received an award for “Newsmaker of the Year” from FOX News and closed off the ceremony from the White House Press Corps, I’m sure The New York Times and MSNBC would have had a field day. (Which, under that scenario, they would had been justified.)

This manipulation of the press is growing day by day at the White House. The Obama administration has a running feud with traditional news-gathering techniques. Yes, this is a small event of no great importance to many people. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of award ceremonies at the White House every year, few of which get any kind of notice. But the trend of this administration is to tightly control the message. See here, here, here and here. This is not change in Washington that benefits a democracy, and it’s a trend that needs to be reversed.

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March 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Can Reporters Ethically Join the Obama Administration?

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UPDATE, 11 p.m. Eastern, Feb. 18: Calderone defends his story against charges that it was slanted against Democrats.

A number of people are starting to question the latest craze for mainstream media veterans of jumping to the Dark Side to work for government, specially the Obama administration and the Democrat leadership on the Hill. Once considered a suicidal leap in journalism, the trend is growing in light of the fact that so many newspapers are cutting staff (see the list on the blogspot version of this page, for example) as well as the fact that most journalists are in-tune with what the new president is trying to accomplish.

Michael Calderone of Politico explored this phenomenon extensively:

In an interview, [Jill Zuckman] said that she began looking around for a new job last month, motivated by the grim state of the industry — her employer, the Tribune Co., recently slashed its D.C. bureau — and also by her own feeling that she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do covering politics.

She said she had no plans to go to the administration — until she heard about an opening under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican representative she’s long respected for reaching across the aisle.

So, would Zuckman have taken — or even been offered — such a job if [Sen. John] McCain were president?

“I have a great deal of respect for [McCain] and have thoroughly enjoyed covering him over the years,” Zuckman said. “But there’s no way I can answer your hypothetical because I wouldn’t know who he would have chosen for secretary of transportation. My decision to go to work for the Obama administration is tied up in my relationship with Ray LaHood and his focus on getting the economy back on track.”

Conservative Michelle Malkin calls it “Obama’s own little MSM bailout program.”

Zuckman isn’t alone. She’s the latest of a number of high profile journalists who have crossed sides. Calderone provide this following rundown:

*Scott Shepard of Cox is now Sen. John Kerry’s speechwriter.
*Doug Frantz, formerly an investigative reporter, is now chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Kerry.
*Tribune’s Peter Gosselin is now a speechwriter for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
*Time’s Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney is now Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director.
*Warren Bass left the Washington Post’s Outlook section to write speeches and advise Dr. Susan Rice at the United Nations.
*Daniel W. Reilly left Politico to become communications director for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
*Linda Douglass left the National Journal for the Obama campaign in May and is expected to become assistant secretary for public affairs in the department of Health and Human Services.

The ethical question is once you have jumped over that fence, can you jump back and expected to at least pretend you are covering politics down the middle of the road? The political question is whether this is a sign of a glaring media bias during the campaign or just economic realities?

Of the journalists flocking to government jobs, Pew Project Director Tom Rosenstiel told Calderone that: “There’s no mystery here, and I don’t think the key to this is ideological as much as economic. The newspaper industry, in Washington in particular, is suffering mightily.” The Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently published a report on “The New Washington Press Corps,” describing the decline of the Washington Press Corps.

But Brent Bozell had a different take for Calderone:

“If you are in journalism, and you can so easily fit in the world of politics, it tells you something,” Bozell said, “that you were not that detached from it when you were in journalism.”

Perhaps proving Bozell’s point, journalists say that there used to be more stigma attached when a reporter crossed over to cover someone he’s covered. Now, they say, it’s hard to consider a colleague a sell-out when the alternative to a government job could be the unemployment line.

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February 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Frustrations Growing Between Obama Press Office and Reporters

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David  Cay Johnston expressed some frustrations with President Barack Obama’s press office yesterday in the Columbia Journalism Review. These are the same concerns I voiced in earlier posts here and here.

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.

This is  a troubling sign. There have been indications starting with the campaign that the Obama team views press coverage and questions only to be used as a tool to put out their message in their own way. And it’s a philosophy that starts at the top. Obama once told a reporter during the transition to not “waste a question” when asked about a subject that was difficult and not a part of that day’s message.

Obama, when touring the White House press room two days after the inauguration, was asked a tough question about the deputy Defense secretary whom Obama has appointed. The appointee had lobbied for Raytheon, but Obama’ had just issued new rules against lobbyists coming to work for him. Obama responded: “I came down here to visit. I didn’t come down here — this is what happens.

“I can’t end up visiting you guys and shaking hands if I am going to grilled every time I come down here.”

Hint to the president … yes, expect tough questions in the press room at all time.

In addition, Gibbs’ relationship with the media has always been a bit cool, as he had limited the access to candidate Obama to only venues that put the senator in a good light. That’s a tactic that played out well during a campaign, but may not sell when dealing with the leader of the free world.

There is a difficulty in what had been standard procedures. Transcripts of the gaggle and press briefings are not being released online, only edited snippets.  Gibbs at one point did not know that the press wanted the “week ahead”, (the president’s schedule for the next week), which is traditionally released on Friday.

It’s all about managing the message (and the press) for the Obama team right now, spoon-feeding only what it wants to spoon-feed, and not dealing with the difficult day-to-day questions from reporters. But why should it be difficult to spell your name or give your title? Many other reporters have describe similar difficulties in dealing with the press office. The question is whether this these missteps are a matter of getting your feet wet or is it a matter of policy? Could they be acting this way on purpose?

On the podium, Gibbs is also struggling to find his way in the early going. His answers have been evasive, and not very enlightening. Here is an exchange from an earlier press briefing:

… Among the lessons that Gibbs will learn from his predecessors is the necessity of having an answer when the tough questions start coming.

That lesson started unfolding today.

On Pakistan, was Obama consulted before the newest missile strikes or did he consult with Pakistan on that?

“I’m not going to speak about these matters today,” Gibbs said.

“I was just a little confused because you took the question,” said a reporter, who had asked a two-parter about this and the economic stimulus bill’s job creation and got his jobs answer but not his Pakistan answer.

“I gave you my answer,” Gibbs said.

“Second question,” the reporter pressed.

“My answer was I wasn’t going to talk about that.”

A little later, a reporter asked: “Other U.S. officials have confirmed these Predator drone airstrikes in Pakistan. What is it about not confirming whether the president was consulted?”

“I’m not going to get into these matters,” Gibbs said.
“How does that compromise operational… ?”

“I’m not going to get into these matters,” Gibbs said. “There are many things that you should be justifiably curious about. But I’m not going to get into talking about….”

“If other members of the U.S. government are confirming this, why is it that you can’t comment?

“I’m not going to get into these matters,” Gibbs repeated…

“There was a report today that the president is withdrawing Jim Jones and Larry Summers from the World Economic Forum at Davos,” another reporter asked later, after a number of questions were answered at length. “Is there a reason for that? Is there some message that’s trying to be sent for the fact that the two of them are not going, as originally planned?

“I don’t know anything about that, so I don’t have anything for you on that,” Gibbs said. “I apologize. ”

And later, why has the White House asked for the resignation of Mark Dybul, the Global AIDS coordinator in the Bush administration, after first indicating that he might stay on the job.

“I don’t have anything on the AIDS office,” Gibbs said. “I have not read anything on that.”

Johnston’s conclusion is right on the nose:

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 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.

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January 30, 2009 at 8:38 am

Obama Limits Access to Questions at Press Conferences

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Have you noticed how president-elect Barack Obama is conducting his press conferences? After he finishes reading off his statement of the day, he looks down at a notepad and calls out the names of three of four journalists who have been preselected to ask questions. These journalists have been notified in advance that they are the lucky few who have been selected to pose a question. In addition, many are not from the regular White House pres corps. They are usually local journalists who are not so much interested in broad policy issues but instead want to know something about their local person who was just appointed to a post in the administration.

This is not how a press conference is supposed to be conducted. The traditional method is a political makes a statement, then opens the floor to questions. Journalists raise their hands, or in some cases, start shouting out the questions that need to be answered. This has been gnawing at me for weeks. How does he select the reporters who are allowed to ask questions? Why has the media followed this program like sheep?

Carol Marin of the Chicago Sun-Times had the same thoughts today:

The Obama news conferences tell that story, making one yearn for the return of the always-irritating Sam Donaldson to awaken the slumbering press to the notion that decorum isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The press corps, most of us, don’t even bother raising our hands any more to ask questions because Obama always has before him a list of correspondents who’ve been advised they will be called upon that day.

We reporters have earned our own membership in the Bizarro universe.

Who are we, after all? The ones rapid-firing at Rod Blagojevich with tough questions until we drive him from the room? Or the Miss Manners crowd, silent until called upon, quietly accepting that only a handful of questions will be taken at a time?

President Bush took a beating in the main stream media for trying to control the press. But soon-to-be President Obama’s taking it one step further. All of this should not be a surprise. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post saw 12 months ago the aloof nature of the Obama campaign towards the press and its desire to keep the senator isolated from the media. On Jan. 28, 2008, Kurtz wrote:

When reporters filed onto Barack Obama’s press plane after his acrimonious debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, one thing was noticeably missing amid the wine and snacks on the Boeing 737.

There was no high-level campaign spinner to argue that Obama had gotten the better of the exchanges or that the verbal fisticuffs were part of some precisely calculated strategy. On the press bus the next day, mid-level aides dealt with travel logistics but made no attempt to shape the coverage.

In an age of all-out political warfare, the Obama campaign is a bit of an odd duck: It is not obsessed with winning each news cycle. The Illinois senator remains a remote figure to those covering him, and his team, while competent and professional, makes only spotty attempts to drive its preferred story lines in the press.

“There is no charm offensive from the candidate toward the press corps,” says Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe. “The contact is limited. . . . They see the national media more as a logistical problem than a channel for getting stuff out.”

As Obama’s blowout victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary shows, an aloof attitude toward the media may not be a liability for a candidate with his oratorical gifts. Even the pundits’ attempts to minimize his win by focusing on Obama’s capturing a quarter of the white vote — no small achievement in a three-way contest — came after a week in which journalists talked about race far more than he did. But the contrast in his press strategy is striking, not just with Clinton’s campaign — which aggressively lobbies journalists around the clock — but also with the Bush White House and the Clinton White House before that. And that, Obama aides say, is by design.

It will be interesting to see as the new administration takes power if it intends to keep the president on message by limiting the access to the media, especially reporters who are interested in tougher questions. It will also be interesting to see if the media pushes back against a popular president as much as it pushed backed against an unpopular one.

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January 13, 2009 at 2:00 pm

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