The servile White House press corps

There is perhaps no body of journalists in the US more useless than the White House press corps. These are the people who spend their days in the White House or follow the president on his travels, hoping for some morsel of news to be dropped or to overhear a gaffe or get a deliberate ‘leak’ from an important source. This seems like a soul-killing job to me but apparently these are much sought-after gigs by some reporters because they are high profile.

These ‘reporters’ seem to love the chance to hobnob socially with government officials at receptions and dinners and the like. Who can forget the video of alleged reporter David Gregory, to much approval from his peers, acting as a backup dancer to Karl Rove at one of those dinners, surely one of the most cringe-inducing and embarrassing but revealing looks at how the press views itself?

Because this kind of access journalism has replaced real reporting, presidential administrations have caught on to the fact that these reporters need them more than the other way around and have started treating them with increasing contempt, manipulating them in not-so-subtle ways. And the Obama administration has been apparently doing so with even greater zest and skill. This has caused rumblings in the press corps, as this article from Politico reveals.

President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.

Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.

The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

At the same time, this White House has greatly curtailed impromptu moments where reporters can ask tough questions after a staged event — or snap a picture of the president that was not shot by government-paid photographers.

Yes, they are being prevented from asking ‘tough’ questions! Questions like, like, … Well, actually I cannot remember any. But there must have been because those journalists tell us so. And who will forget those memorable moments when an important story was broken because of a photograph, like the time when … , wait, I am sure it will come to me later.

Notice that the article says without any hint of self-awareness that the problem is that the reporters now have to ‘scramble for access’ and views this as a ‘dangerous development’. They do not realize that it is the press’s desire for access that makes them so vulnerable to this treatment and that that is the real dangerous development. They also seem to not realize that in a democracy with its attendant bureaucracy, there are actually written documents all over the place that tell you what is actually going on. Ferreting those out and piecing together the story behind them is where the real news lies. But that involves actual work and only a few reporters seem to have the ability and editorial license to do so.

So what caused this tame White House press corps to grumble so much that there was a long story in Politico about it? Was it some major news event that they were not allowed to cover? Don’t be silly. They are miffed because they were not allowed to cover Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods.

I for one am glad that the administration treats the traveling press corps with open contempt because they deserve it. My hope is that if they get disgusted enough, maybe their organizations would withdraw them and assign them to investigate actual news, doing investigative work instead of merely passing along those things that government officials tell them both on and off the record.

But I fear that will not happen. The White House press corps has the equivalent of the ‘battered spouse syndrome’ where they won’t leave however badly they are treated. They will be ever hopeful that the occasional crumb thrown their way is a sign of the beginning of a glorious new relationship, rather than just another manipulative gesture designed to keep them in line.


  1. slc1 says

    I have to say that I find the complaints about the golf outing Obama had with Tiger Woods rather amusing. Former president Clinton had a number of such outings with golf pro Greg Norman and even stayed at the latter’s estate in Florida, which the traveling press corps was not invited to observe. I can also recall a golf outing with President Clinton and his predecessor George H. W. Bush paired with former pro golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (Palmer is a Rethuglican, Nicklaus is a Democrat) which the traveling press corps was not invited to observe. This is not to mention the numerous golf outings with President Clinton and his Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Shelton at the Army/Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., which the press was not invited to observe.

  2. left0ver1under says

    What was done to Eliot Spitzer was done to Helen Thomas: A personal mistake by each was used to commit character assassination and force each out of their job. They weren’t lacking in their performance of the job, and were the only ones actually doing their job.

  3. ph041985 says

    I found it bizarre how that White House reporter (Yellin) found it so satisfying to ask such questions, as if asking whether such a picture of Obama skeet shooting was her Watergate. What would that even prove in this case? It’s not like an official document like his birth certificate; Obama could just zip up to Camp David that very same day and take a picture, and how the heck would anyone even know and be able to prove that they did or didn’t do that? Or you know, there’s this thing called Photoshop. What passes for journalism these days is, to me, simply bizarre.

  4. slc1 says

    Re leftOver1under @ #3

    This is a totally moronic comparison. Former Governor Spitzer violated a number of laws by his actions, including transporting women across state lines for the purpose of immoral acts (used to be called the White Slave Act). He was very fortunate not to be prosecuted and sent to the slammer.

    Ms. Thomas, on the other hand, violated no laws. She made a bigoted statement and was called on it. Nothing illegal about that. My suspicion is that Ms. Thomas was beginning to show signs of senility, which probably had more to do with her firing then the statement itself.

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