Imagine this: The press corps assigned to cover the nation's leader, upset with what it perceives to be policies designed to stifle critical coverage of the administration, walks out of one of his press conferences and leaves him to speak, practically alone, straight to the television cameras.
What's that, you say? This is some sort of joke? The press would never act so boldly? Perhaps this is some sort of Jay Rosen fantasy?
Well, it actually happened last week -- in Canada. For Americans, the relevance of what's transpiring there -- which, for the moment, appears to be a full-scale showdown between the Ottawa press corps and Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- might not be entirely obvious, but the result of the standoff up North may in fact hold some lessons for our President, future Presidents, and the White House press corps.
First, some background. The proximate cause of the walkout, which occurred at a press conference at which the Prime Minister was to speak about aid to Darfur, was an announcement from Harper's office beforehand that reporters who wanted to ask him questions would be required to put their names on a list, from which his media relations staff would select those who would be called upon. Displeased with this new arrangement, two dozen political reporters walked out when Harper took the podium. The few who stayed behind had also not put their names down on the list and, accordingly, were not permitted to ask any questions. The president of the press galley later voiced their concerns. "We can't accept that the Prime Minister's Office would decide who gets to ask questions," he said, "Does that mean that when there's a crisis they'll only call upon journalists they expect softball questions from?"
Remarkably, shortly thereafter, Harper announced that he would no longer hold press conferences for the national media. He told a television station that "unfortunately the press gallery has taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government." Harper added, "They don't ask questions at my press conferences now. We'll just take the message out on the road. There's lots of media who do want to ask questions and hear what the government is doing."
If this all seems rather capricious, it's important to note the backdrop against which this occurred. As The New York Times put it, "Since the election of his minority Conservative government in January, Mr. Harper and his staff have repeatedly tried to change how Canada's news outlets deal with its prime minister. Mr. Harper's office is vetting minor government announcements, members of his cabinet have generally been off limits to reporters, and cameras have been blocked from covering the return of Canadian soldiers' remains from Afghanistan." Harper, for his part, simply thinks that the liberal press has been giving him grief since he took office because they don't like his politics. The Los Angeles Times notes that Harper "has moved toward dismantling many of his predecessors' policies, including gun control, support for medical marijuana and backing of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming."
The parallels to the relationship between President Bush and the Washington press corps are almost too obvious to point out: a conservative leader who thinks the national press is out to ruin him; a communications strategy designed to manage all information out of the administration (including a prohibition on photographing coffins carrying deceased soldiers); a preference for local news outlets, which are perceived to be more sympathetic to the government, for disseminating information; and, indeed, an apparently larger strategy aimed at starving the media beast and thereby rendering the press irrelevant to the process of governing.
This newest wrinkle -- the Ottawa press corps' willingness to take a stand for itself and Harper's insistence, for the time being at least, that he will no longer speak directly to them -- almost allows us to witness in real-time something of a universe alternate to our own, where the White House press corps has largely just taken all the lies, the obfuscations, the near-accusations of treason, and the insults that have been thrown at them over the last five-and-a-half years (those links, incidentally, are by no means intended to be exhaustive). We would do well to watch what the result of this standoff in Canada is, for in the resolution of this conflict may lie clues for what the White House press corps can do the next time there's an affront to the functions it is supposed to carry out and/or its very existence.
The President has been somewhat humbled in recent months by his dismal, almost Nixonian poll numbers -- which have led him to make some occasional admissions that, for him, count as candor -- but if he ever climbs back into safe approval territory, it's a sure bet that along with his renewed confidence will come an aggressive resurgence of the very same tactics his administration has used to marginalize and thwart the press. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the possibility that Bush's strategies -- which by and large succeeded before the reality of his presidency became diametrically and obviously opposed to the version of events he was portraying (see, e.g., Iraq) -- might be used by future Presidents seeking to tightly control their communications. Jay Rosen calls it "rollback," and if you think the end of Bush's presidency necessarily spells the end of it, think again.
Critics of the White House press corps occasionally take them to task for being unwilling to visibly assert themselves when they have come under fire from the Bush administration (it is a critique that, with friends from time to time, I too have set forth). The most skeletal version of one theory behind this critique basically runs as follows: If the press stops laughing at the President's lame jokes and indulging his penchant for fratboy schmoozing (pointing out, for instance, that he has basically given at least three reporters the nickname "Stretch"); if they call him and his communications team out on how they have been misled and disregarded; and if they tell the administration that they will no longer simply transcribe the White House's verbal press releases without more (and honest) explanations; they might regain some of the public's confidence and thwart the administration's hardball media relations tactics.
What we are about to find out from Canada -- in an admittedly slight and imperfect way, as comparisons using alternate universes are wont to be -- is whether such a grand stand would succeed or whether, if a President were to hold his (or her) ground against a media coup, as Harper is doing, the public really would think for a period of time that it could do without a vigorous national press corps. It's not often that we get to see an experiment like this run, and the outcome should be of interest to media watchers in the US. This is not to say that the press would be without other recourses in such situations -- the best reporting in Washington, after all, takes place outside of the White House press corps proper -- but, rather, that a confident, public, and justifiably contemptuous display of force may or may not be as productive as some of us occasionally think.
So, you might be interested to know, what are the initial returns in Canada? The Prime Minister, it would appear, is winning.