INDIANAPOLIS – White House press secretary Jay Carney’s desk is 50 feet from the entrance to the Oval Office and 50 feet from the podium of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. This is no mere coincidence. The Office of the Press Secretary serves two bosses, the president and the press.
That proximity to both can put the press secretary in an awkward position. Depending on whom you talk to, the White House is either in cahoots with the media or the two are in a constant battle over access to the president. Both of those arguments bubbled back to the surface last week, although one part happened inadvertently.
Following an off-the-record meeting of local news anchors from across the country with Carney, a reporter from Phoenix CBS affiliate KPHO went on the air to tell viewers that the press secretary gets questions from the media in advance of each day’s briefing. Well, she was wrong. After an online uproar, she apologized for mischaracterizing the situation.
Even if there was some truth, it was a well-worn credo during my time in the White House press secretary’s office that “on a good day, you predict 95 percent of questions at the briefing. On a bad day, you predict 85 percent.”
The job of the press secretary is to be in constant communication with the media. That means emails, phone calls, texts and tweets, an all-of-the-above strategy of sorts. So if both the press secretary and the media are doing their jobs, on any given day there will be plenty of interaction before the cameras start rolling at the daily back-and-forth.
On the opposite end of the scale is the question of press access. Should the media be given unfettered access to elected officials or should there be some barriers? This has been a common debate in our First Amendment society, and especially in the Obama White House, as the president and his advisors close off more and more events once open to press coverage.
But first, it’s important to note that the White House press corps generally has more access to government officials than in almost any other country in the world. The office space used by network, newspaper and radio correspondents is separated from the Rose Garden only by a wall. They can easily walk into the press office at almost any time, either to the space directly behind the briefing room podium or up the ramp to the press secretary’s desk, with a direct line of sight to the Oval Office.
That, however, isn’t the beef the press currently has with the White House.
Many reporters have recently called the White House “state-run media.” Instead of allowing photographers into meetings to capture a few brief images of the president with foreign leaders or other dignitaries, the White House has resorted to spreading news and information through controlled means including their own website and social media.
In an ironic twist, First Lady Michelle Obama’s trip last week to China, a country that actually has state-run media, included not a single member of the press corps on the journey. Instead, the White House kept the public abreast of the trip via blog posts published on their website. An Associated Press photographer, Charles Dharapak, lamented these “visual press releases” at a gathering of the Newspaper Association of America in Denver last week.
This all helps to keep the images of the Obamas intact, but barring the media from important historical moments is a disservice to the public.
In the Bush press office, we went out of our way to accommodate the press. In one particular instance, when all the living presidents gathered at the White House for the first time in 25 years, we understood the historical importance of the occasion and worked to ensure that two “waves” of photographers (far more than usual) could come into the Oval Office to capture the moment. It only added two minutes to the event but helped to distribute pictures to a wider audience and helped strengthen relations with the press corps.
The current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue don’t see it that way. They would prefer to put the President of the United States on “Between Two Ferns,” a comedy show with professional actor Zach Galifianakis, rather than in front of professional photographers. I get the strategy behind reaching niche audiences and, from every indication, appearing on “Between Two Ferns” worked. I also get that a mutual beneficial relationship between the White House and the press corps is good business.
But for Jay Carney, the issue of access doesn’t put him “Between Two Ferns,” it puts him between a rock and a hard place.
This column originally appeared in Howey Politics Indiana on March 27, 2014.