It's hard for me to muster up even a whit of sympathy for the forever-beleaguered White House Press Corps. Yet they persist, in a self-made glass case of emotion, to periodically bitch about how difficult their jobs are and how they feel frozen out by President Obama. Last week, it was the New York Times's Peter Baker singing the eloquent complaint-aria:
Over the last two weeks, President Obama has taken questions from unemployed workers in Ohio, students in Florida and a cancer survivor in New Hampshire. He took questions from YouTube users, Senate Democrats and even House Republicans. Almost everyone, it seems, but the White House press corps.
Baker goes on to note that, after a year Obama has succeeded in doing "what every modern president may have wanted to do but never did: effectively shut out the reporters who work just a few feet from the Oval Office." If Peter Baker hadn't told you this, you wouldn't have noticed.
And you probably didn't notice, even then! Why? Because Baker's complaint came during a week of pretty peak public interaction by the president. (Read the above paragraph again... I think Baker noticed this!) But since it obviously didn't occur to anyone in America to be concerned about the White House press corps, Howard Kurtz takes up the matter in an astonishing attempt to make all of this out to be some sort of problem:
It would be hard -- impossible, actually -- to argue that Obama hasn't been accessible to the media, not with his constant television interviews. The man has even done color commentary at a Georgetown basketball game. But the decision to bypass the White House press corps is no accident.
"It's a source of great frustration here," says Chip Reid, CBS's White House correspondent. "It's important for us to hold the president's feet to the fire."
What can I say? The White House Press Room is the finest and most ornate Kabuki theater in the Western Hemisphere. Questions asked by members of the corps are Kabuki. Their complaints about the answers are Kabuki. THIS VERY HOWARD KURTZ ARTICLE IS PART OF THE KABUKI. Meanwhile, America tunes all this right the frack out. In fact, the people seem to prefer watching the House GOP Caucus do the whole "feet to the fire" job! Can you remember the last time Chip Reid asked the president a question and 15,000 people joined a Facebook group, demanding more?
The hilarious thing to me is that the White House Press Corps seems to largely spend its time not digging up scoops of national import, but alternating between their two great ur-complaints of this White House. This month, he's not accessible enough. When that gets corrected, the press corps will bitch about how the president is "overexposed." This actually comes up in the Kurtz column:
Still, a press corps that periodically complained about George W. Bush's infrequent news conferences should not let Obama walk away from the practice unchallenged. And some of its members have protested. Reid raised the issue with Gibbs at a briefing last month, and Hearst columnist Helen Thomas said the president has "gone an obscenely long time, not holding one."
Gibbs responded to Reid by saying that the last time the subject came up, "you all, to a person, reminded me of our dramatic overexposure."
But if you want to gauge the essential lack of value of the White House Press Corps, this pull from Kurtz's column today says it all:
Obama held news conferences in February, March, April, June and July, four of them East Room extravaganzas at 8 p.m. He fielded questions easily and confidently and was widely seen as a natural.
But the July 22 session underscored how the administration can lose control of the story line. During a news conference devoted almost entirely to health-care reform, Obama answered a final question about the arrest of his friend Henry Louis Gates -- he said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" -- and the resulting flap dominated the news for a week.
See, Kurtz is making it sound like the White House went undercover because the brave press corps pinned it down with some groundbreaking journalism. My read is that, after five press conferences the White House noticed that the press corps was putting the most effort behind blowing the Henry Louis Gates incident out of proportion. It was, on substance, one of the least essential things that has ever been uttered at a presidential press conference. BUT HE LOST CONTROL OF THE STORYLINE!
Finally, a win for the White House press room! But when you really look at it, it's not much. It's sort of like winning a reality-show challenge, in that it took a lot of hard work to do and yet didn't change the lives of anyone watching at home.
I mean, the end result of that whole incident was that it forced the president to drink a beer. Trust me, Ron Howard is not going to make a movie about this journalism.