Gibbs Departure Offers Opportunity To Fix White House Press Relations
WASHINGTON -- The modern White House press secretary operates in a defensive crouch, fending off questions rather than answering them and revealing as little as possible.
But does it have to be this way? What if the next press secretary took a different approach -- and offered the media and the public a more expansive view into the goings-on inside the West Wing?
The imminent departure of spokesman Robert Gibbs gives President Barack Obama -- and his new chief of staff, William Daley -- a chance to reset the relationship between the White House and the press, and to live up to Obama's campaign promises about transparency and accountability.
"We all know how close Robert is to the president. He's as close as maybe any press secretary has ever been," said Julie Mason, a reporter for the Washington Examiner and board member of the White House Correspondents' Association. "But we don't get anything for that. It doesn't translate into better information. It just translates into frustration, because you know he isn't telling you what he knows."
Mason said Gibbs comes out to the podium with the goal of not making news.
"It's all about control," she said. "It's all about trying to control the press and trying to control the message. And you can't. And the more that they try to control it, the less information we get."
Indeed, for those who believe this administration might actually benefit from transparency, the briefing room has been a hugely powerful pulpit left unused.
"There are lots of wasted opportunities," said Martha Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University who is the foremost observer of White House press relations. "When you have a situation where the public doesn't understand what's in the health care bill, for instance, the briefing is a place where you have the opportunity to flesh that out."
"In the end, transparency works," she added. "I think generally it's to your benefit to try to explain your policy once you've developed it. I think you have to work every day at explaining what it is you're doing."
Gibbs's tenure "represents a missed opportunity to transform relations with the press and to establish them on a footing of rock-solid candor and integrity," Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy, said in an email.
"One could have imagined something different, and better."
To people who believed Obama's campaign promises about transparency -- and to people who thought the Obama administration had some good stories to tell, and should tell them -- Gibbs was a disappointment from his very first day on the job.
From that first briefing, it was clear that Gibbs's approach would be as defensive and uninformative as his most recent predecessors in the notoriously opaque Bush administration.
That he was doing what his boss wanted became abundantly clear the very next day, when Obama himself visited the White House press room and said he was "very proud" of Gibbs's first outing -- even while insisting that his administration would "try to have a relationship that's respectful and where you guys feel like you're actually getting answers."
One person who was unsurprised was Helen Thomas, the 90-year-old former wire service reporter who covered the White House from 1961 until being unceremoniously drubbed out of the press corps last June for one highly inflammatory comment.
"It's the same old game," she told HuffPost. "They get their marching orders every morning from the chief of staff and the senior advisers."
Those advisers tell the press office "how to handle" whatever the story of the day is. "But they don't have to 'handle' it," Thomas said. "They can either tell the truth or say 'no comment', and most reporters will respect that."
The press secretary owes his loyalty to the public, not the president, Thomas said. "We pay him. The president doesn't pay him out of pocket. He's serving the country."
Obama's overly-defensive press operations also backfire by antagonizing the press corps.
"They often congratulate themselves for being the most open and accessible administration ever, and we just sit there snickering," said Mason.
David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times reporter, was one of the first journalists to go public with his frustrations over the Gibbs press office.
"They expect you to report what they want and they're not interested in dealing in a serious way with those questions they don't want," he told HuffPost. "It causes them to have worse press relations than they need. It has left a lot of reporters unhappy, and that is reflected in the tone of their coverage. It's absolutely shoot yourself in the foot."
Mason said the correspondents' association has repeatedly heard complaints from reporters that they have been berated by members of the press office, and in some cases been cut off in retaliation for pointed questions or unwelcome stories.
There is, however, a bright side of being snubbed by the press office, Mason said: "Their information is so useless that when they cut you off, they're not really harming you in any way."
Would it help if the new press secretary took a more journalistic approach to the job?
What if he or she was a journalist, rather than a career public-relations person or political operative?
"I think it would be beneficial to the press," said Ron Nessen, the last journalist to hold the position. Nessen served as Gerald Ford's press secretary from 1974 to 1977, after six years at UPI and 12 years at NBC.
In addition to doing his best to answer questions the way Ford would, Nessen said, "I also considered myself to be an advocate for the press, on the inside."
When he had access to events or meetings that were closed to the press, he would act as if he was the pool reporter, he said. Then, "I would give my pool report to the press when the meeting or event was over."
Gibbs in no way saw himself as a representative for the press, Mason said. "He really prized his other role, as adviser to the president. I think that's what he was interested in being."
"Hopefully, Obama will get a press secretary who understands that the press are not publicity agents," said Johnston. "I think it would help a great deal if you had a real journalist be press secretary -- a real journalist who has covered the White House and understands journalism. I think that's a core issue: not understanding what it is the press does."
A journalist, Johnston said, could help the White House "stop inflicting unnecessary damage both in the tone of the coverage they're getting and in the lack of information to the American public."
"The ideal person for that position is someone who is both close to the president and understands the need for journalists -- and citizens -- to have real information about what is going on in the White House," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. "A journalist, it seems to me, would have the right kinds of sympathies."
Helen Thomas agreed: "I think that a journalist with honesty and integrity who values his credibility would be good," she said. "But you have to find that person. Not just someone playing ball with what the administration said."
Mason, however, is skeptical that a journalist would do any better. "I think that once you get inside that cloister, you cease to be a journalist," she said.
The Washington Post on Saturday published a short list of possible Gibbs replacements that included Jay Carney, a former Time reporter who is now Vice President Biden's spokesman, former Fox News now National Journal reporter Major Garrett, and author/pundit Richard Wolffe.
Miller has another major hope when it comes to Gibbs's replacement. "I'd like to see a press secretary who is more involved in social media, who uses more modern communication techniques," she said.
Indeed, although Obama's Internet operations are a step forward from Bush's -- thanks to such features as a blog, a bit of tweeting, and a photostream -- the administration has chosen to keep its website primarily a forum for talking points rather than transparency.
By comparison, consider my November 2008 call for a Wiki White House. I was hoping to see a website where staffers maintain blogs in which they write about who they are and what they are working on; where some West Wing meetings are streamed in live video; where progress toward campaign promises is tracked on a daily basis; and where major policy proposals have public collaborative workspaces, or wikis.
Scott McClellan says Obama ought to take advantage of Gibbs' departure to try a whole new approach.
McClellan served as George W. Bush's robotic spokesman from 2003 to 2006, Then, in 2008, he penned a shocking memoir that vindicated almost every key element of the Bush critique and scathingly described the press corps as complicit enablers.
"The modern press secretary is given limited parameters within which to operate," McClellan said in an email. "I think if the White House simply views this as an opportunity to hire a new press secretary to do the same job the way it's been done the past couple of decades or so, then they will have missed an opportunity."
"My belief is that the modern press briefing is antiquated and neither serves the president nor the public very well," he added. "The White House and public would be better served if the former was willing to redefine the role of the press secretary and adopt a new model for the press briefing."
What would that look like? "The new briefing model would be less reliant on the press secretary serving as the spokesman and more dependent on the regular participation of senior White House and administration officials," McClellan wrote. "If structured the right way, I think such an approach would stand a better chance of bringing about greater transparency (helping to fulfill President Obama's pledge) and forthrightness, and potentially help the White House transcend the usual Washington game."
But, McClellan said, there is "clear political risk" to changing the status quo. So he's not optimistic.
Of course, it's not just the White House's fault that there isn't more substance in the press briefing. It's also the press corps' fault.
"I think there are probably a lot more policy questions that they would answer if they got the questions," Kumar said. "You have to look at the questions."
Those questions, in turn, are a function of how political news is defined in the modern media climate.
For many of the reporters covering the White House, reporting about policy and the reasoning behind it isn't nearly as sexy as "trying to find inconsistency, trying to find contention between major actors in the political system," Kumar said.
And let's not forget that some major media players are overtly seeking the president's downfall and looking for any tidbit that might help.
What would really be informative and eye-opening for the public would be to learn how the president and his top aides arrive at their conclusions; what options they consider, why they rule some out, what concerns remain.
But the media's obsession with conflict has made modern press secretaries avoid any discussion of the deliberative process like the plague, Kumar said.
"They really don't want to talk about that, because the focus then isn't on the policy itself, but the process by which they arrived at it," she said. The emphasis of much of the coverage, she said, would inevitably be on "what they didn't do, rather than what they did do" and on who the winners and losers were.
"As a political scientist, I'd love to see it. It would be even better if they would write it down and then send it out," Kumar said, laughing. "That's not going to happen."
The ultimate irony of the Obama White House's chokehold on information is that, for a Democratic administration, this is a great time for a genuine transparency regime. So many of the tenets of the modern Republican Party are so unmoored from reality that simply bringing actual facts to light can serve as a hugely effective political rebuttal.
For the Bush administration, of course, there was no margin in transparency. Its major legacies -- war in Iraq, torture, tax cuts for the rich, Medicare prescription-drug coverage and a new surveillance state, just for starters -- depended instead on keeping the public ignorant and misinformed.
Transparency didn't have much of a chance during Rahm Emanuel's tenure as chief of staff, either. Despite Obama's pledge to hold health-care negotiations on C-Span, for example, Emanuel was a believer in backroom deals. And his willingness to sacrifice principle for alleged expediency was not suited to public display.
The White House's approach to the press was, of course, ultimately Obama's call, not that of Emanuel or Gibbs. But their departure still gives Obama a chance to reset and rethink. If he genuinely believes in transparency, then this is an opportunity for a fresh start.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.