At some point in every presidency, the White House press corps begins to complain about how they're being treated. Sometimes these complaints are legitimate and necessary, the Fourth Estate demanding that the public be adequately informed of what its government is up to. At other times, it's little more than a bunch of overpaid prima donnas whining that the White House staff isn't treating them with the deference they feel they deserve and doing their jobs for them. So let's say you're one of those reporters, and your frustration has been mounting. How can you make sure everyone understands that your gripe is of the first kind and not the second? Well for starters, you might not want to rise up to express your outrage over the fact that you didn't get to watch the President play golf with Tiger Woods.
But that's just what happened over the last couple of days. It seems that when Barack Obama hit the links with Woods over the weekend, White House reporters weren't allowed to follow along and take pictures. Denied their opportunity to ferret out the big stories that keep the American people informed, those reporters were steamed something fierce. Fox reporter Ed Henry, who chairs the White House Correspondents Association, released a statement saying his colleages had "expressed extreme frustration to me about having absolutely no access to the President of the United States this entire weekend." Lest you think this just some trivial spat, Henry later clarified:
"This is a fight for more access, period," Henry told POLITICO late Monday night. "I've heard all kinds of critics saying the White House press corps is whining about a golf game and violating the president's privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth."
"We're not interested in violating the president's privacy. He's entitled to vacations like everyone else. All we're asking for is a brief exception, quick access, a quick photo-op on the 18th green," Henry continued. "It's not about golf -- it's about transparency and access in a broader sense."
Yes indeed, "transparency" is what it's about. After all, it's one thing to keep secret from the public the rationale by which the President maintains a "kill list" of Americans and foreign nationals he'll assassinate whenever he gets the chance, but surely you won't deny us the opportunity to shout inane questions at him on the 18th green! That's just going too far.
As you can imagine, Politico is all over this spat, and one of their multiple articles on it (titled "Obama, the Puppet Master," not to be overly dramatic or anything) contains all kinds of revealing quotes. For instance: "This administration loves to boast about how transparent they are, but they’re transparent about things they want to be transparent about," said Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS News reporter. "He gives interviews not for our benefit, but to achieve his objective." Well, yeah. That's what administrations do. Reporters "find his staff needlessly stingy with information and thin-skinned about any tough coverage," while "The president’s staff often finds Washington reporters whiny, needy and too enamored with trivial matters or their own self-importance." Right on both counts!
As I said, this is an old story. Eleven years ago, Nicholas Confessore (now a New York Times reporter) wrote a story for this very magazine about how the Bush administration was mistreating the White House press corps. The details vary—in the case of the Bushies it was a kind of vindictive bullying, while today reporters are mad that the President goes around them by giving interviews to local reporters and making comprehensive use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media—but the essential adversarial nature of the relationship, and reporters' displeasure with the unequal nature of that relationship, is the same. What I mean by the unequal nature is that while the reporters can make the staff's life difficult if they choose by giving them negative coverage, the White House can make the reporters' jobs almost impossible by ignoring their requests for information, not letting them come along to important events, and so on. The White House has the upper hand, and everyone knows it.
White House reporters work in a gilded cage. Their jobs are glamorous, being right there near the most powerful person on earth, but they don't get the chance to do much in the way of real reporting. They seldom get scoops that have any meaning beyond tomorrow's news cycle; indeed, a scoop for a White House reporter usually consists of finding something out ten minutes before everyone else was going to find it out anyway. A lot of what they do is sitting around waiting for the president's staff to spoon-feed the news to them. So despite their high profile, I'm sure many of them are possessed by the nagging feeling that they're not doing nearly as much real journalism as they'd like.
There may not be an easy answer to their dilemma. But I can tell you one thing: whatever that answer is, complaining that you didn't get to shout a question at Tiger Woods sure as hell isn't the way to find it.