It was probably, in retrospect, bad timing for Politico to publish a long article complaining about the Obama administration's ill treatment of the White House press corps on the same day the White House press corps, with lots of help from Politico, was complaining bitterly about not getting a photo-op of Obama and Tiger Woods golfing together in Florida last weekend. The big golf grievance successfully "kicked off a kind of debate about the Obama administration's atrocious record of letting the press corps talk to the president," raging "from the pages of Politico to... well, to the pages of Politico," says David Weigel at Slate. But as, um, Politico's Dylan Byers explains:
It started as a plea for transparency; it's ending up as a public relations disaster. When the White House press corps made its plea for greater access to President Obama, they were hoping to force the administration to cooperate on an issue that has frustrated them since the earliest days of Obama's presidency. But by choosing to raise their voices over a golfing vacation — rather than, say, a foreign or domestic policy issue — the press corps may have blown its chances for public sympathy, and even damaged its own reputation. [Politico]
This is where the griping registered by Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei comes in. After calling Obama a "puppet master" for being really good at bypassing the press corps through Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and White House–issued photographs, Allen and VandeHei say this tilting of power from the press corps to the White House is "an arguably dangerous development." They only hint at why — unlike the network anchors and local TV stations Obama sits down with regularly, the White House correspondents for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Politico are "are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions" — but their article is actually a pretty good argument for why the White House press corps is increasingly irrelevant.
Most of the reaction, from the Left and Right, seems to line up with the views the Politico journalists ascribe to White House staffers: The Washington press corps is "whiny, needy, and too enamored with trivial matters or their own self-importance." Gawker's John Cook, for example, brutally tweeted every question that Allen, himself a former White House correspondent, posed to George W. Bush in 2008, when he had access to a president; it makes for pretty light reading (examples: "Mr. President, who does the better impression, Will Ferrell of you, or Dana Carvey of your father?"; "Mr. President, I know you're going to hate this, but I'm hoping that we may twist your arm and talk about baseball for just a moment.")
"I wish I knew what to think about this," says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. On the one hand, I'd like Obama and future presidents to make themselves more available for tough questioning from the press.
However, I'd also like a national press corps that pays enough attention to policy that it can ask tough questions and then keep drilling down when they're getting brushed off. But most of them don't. They ask predictable questions based on whatever the opposition party happens to be kvetching about at the moment, and that represents the limit of what they can do. I'm pretty sure you could give Mike Allen a 10-hour interview with the president and he still wouldn't be able to nail him down on a tough policy question of any importance. He either doesn't care, doesn't have the background knowledge to do it, or both. [Mother Jones]
It's true that "the increasingly vestigial-looking White House press corps isn't really suited for" asking tough policy questions, says Slate's Weigel. But Ana Marie Cox came up with a solution for that years ago: Get rid of the White House press corps and replace it with "an ever-changing amoeba of beat reporters" — if the president is going to talk about North Korea, send national security and Asia reporters to grill him; if he's talking about universal pre-K, send in the education reporters. White House correspondent isn't the prestigious job it used to be, and it's expensive to send reporters all around the country and abroad.
If America really needs to know what's up at the president's golf game, why send a human to lurk and lip-read? Send an unmanned drone with a mic and camera. It would be ironic, it would cost less, and wouldn't waste so many people's time. [Slate]
Journalists have been complaining about the "gilded cage" of the White House correspondent post since at least the Reagan administration, says Carter Eskew at The Washington Post. And the set-up, increasingly, is not good for anyone. After being fed "daily dry morsels of prepackaged news," is it any wonder reporters became "feral" when "real news, like Iran-Contra or Monica Lewinsky," hit their desk? "They were starving for something real, and perhaps for payback." Maybe now is the time to radically rethink putting seasoned journalists into this situation.
The relationship between the White House press corps and the administrations it covers needs to change. It isn't a fair fight, and it hasn't been for more than 30 years.... The press should accept that on the White House playing field, the president, literally and figuratively, has all the guns. But instead of surrendering, the press should engage in asymmetric warfare. Instead of putting its best and brightest at the White House, beef up congressional coverage and the proceedings at the departments and the agencies. Send interns to cover the daily press briefings; refuse to cover purely staged events; rely solely on a pool feed. Make the White House come to you. Right now, they take you for granted, or just go around you. Don't be complicit in making yourselves irrelevant. [Washington Post]
That might be a little drastic, says Mother Jones' Drum. Look, "Obama is right: The D.C. press corps is hardly worth engaging with on subjects of any substance. But the D.C. press corps is also right: He should make himself available anyway." That at least puts the two sides on the same playing field, level or not. Then, "if reporters don't lay a glove on him, that's their problem, not his."