The pool report reads like a dispatch from the war-torn deserts of northern Mali. At 1:45 p.m., the reporter assigned to cover the president on Saturday “got confirmation” on where the president was. “Still officially under a lid,” wrote the reporter, “we decided to assemble and at 2:10 PM we logged a request to the White House for access.” The wrangling went on for hours, until “our handlers finally arrived at 4:17 PM and our bus was on the move.” In the last update, reporters learned that the pool was “holding outside the compound.”
The request, of course, was for the president to open up his golf game with Tiger Woods and maybe take some questions. The White House’s failure to do so inspired a letter from Fox News’ Ed Henry, president of the White House Correspondents Association. “All we're asking for is a brief exception, quick access, a quick photo-op on the 18th green,” Henry told Politico’s Dylan Byers. “It's not about golf—it's about transparency and access in a broader sense.”
This sounds incredibly stupid, but sometimes it’s the stupid things that count. Henry et al. have kicked off a kind of debate about the Obama administration’s atrocious record of letting the press corps talk to the president. The debate has raged from the pages of Politico to … well, to the pages of Politico. But the magazine/website/cult is right on this one. George W. Bush took questions after 355 events; Obama has taken questions after only 107 events. The president’s held 35 press conferences, but only a few in primetime.
Obama’s contempt for the press corps runs long and deep. In the 2008 campaign, he could go weeks without an “avail.” In March 2008, at a low point before the Ohio and Texas primaries, Obama tried to end a press conference and looked shocked that the press kept shouting at him. “C’mon, guys,” he said. “I just answered, like, eight questions!” In office, Obama has given 60 Minutes’s Steve Kroft the privilege of regular, Tuesdays With Morrie-esque interviews, with questions like, “What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?”
Surely, the White House press corps can do better than this. “Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View’?” wrote Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in Politico. “The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and others in years. These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.”
If that’s true, why isn’t the daily coverage coming out of the White House more interesting? Why doesn’t anything resembling news come out of the daily Q&As? The White House (transparently!) publishes all the questions and on-the-record answers that come in the daily briefings or gaggles. Since the State of the Union, the sluggers on the White House beat haven’t moved the story at all. The big questions, the non-logistical questions (i.e., not “why is he going to this factory?”), fit into three categories:
How will you pass this? The first questions after the State of the Union to Jay Carney and economic adviser Jason Furman were about tactics. “What is your strategy this time for sort of getting Congress' approval on this strategy?” asked one reporter. That teed up Carney for some talking points: “If this president or any leader approached these challenges with an attitude of, well, this is going to be hard so I won't try, we wouldn’t get anything done in Washington.” About the only new idea in the president’s speech was a minimum wage hike. That proposal led one reporter to tell deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest, “We’ve heard some remarks from Speaker Boehner expressing reluctance to pass this,” followed by this question: “What’s the administration’s strategy?” Earnest dodged. “The last two times that we have raised the minimum wage, Republicans were instrumental in the effort to get it raised,” he said, pointlessly.
How do you respond to this? Shooting over a question that originated elsewhere is a clean way of sounding objective. “Has the White House ever said why it thinks Senate Republicans are linking Hagel's confirmation to the events in Benghazi?” asked one reporter on the flight to Chicago on Friday. “I mean, why are they so insistent on linking the two?” After the State of the Union, a smorgasbord of economic claims with little data, a reporter tried to dig in by citing a think tank report. “I read this morning an analysis, I think from Brookings, that the statements last night were a rejection of the idea of a territorial tax system.” Carney, sarcastically, thanked the reporter “for in the morning reading think-tank analysis before everyone else.”
Remember when you said this? After the State of the Union, Carney and Furman were reminded that “the president in 2008 proposed raising the minimum wage to $9.50,” a full 50 cents higher than his current plan. “So are Americans able to get by on less now than they would be four years ago?” This and the question about legislative strategy were the only queries about the minimum wage all week.
That was why Ed Henry’s complaints were not endorsed by an angry mob of readers. What exactly are they getting from the White House press corps, when it has access and when it doesn’t? The only media able to cancel out the president’s impressive filibustering skills are Reddit AMAs and Google Hangouts. The White House reporters are able to broadcast or dateline from exotic locations—the beat, writes Michael Hastings in his e-book about 2012, is “a serious, $10,000-a-day habit of following presidents around the country and the world.”
I’ve heard more than a few reporters complain about the drop-off in real, interesting stories when they’re “promoted” from the congressional beat to the White House. Instead of collaring committee chairmen and breaking news, they’re getting anonymous background reads on stories that aren’t even interesting, and they’re maybe getting to ask Jay Carney about a story bubbling up on the Drudge Report. These poor souls got their tribute in the fourth episode of House of Cards, where the odious/ambitious young reporter, Zoe Barnes, is offered the White House beat and turns it down. “The White House is where news goes to die,” she says. “Everything is canned—all those prepared statements.” A colleague insists that the beat is prestigious. “It used to be. When I was in ninth grade. Now it’s a graveyard.”
An irrelevant White House press corps is what any White House wants. That doesn’t mean it’s good for the president. Had President Obama gotten a few questions about the timeline of the Benghazi attacks—had Steve Kroft bared some of the teeth he showed when he reported a story on Congress—it wouldn’t be so easy for Republicans to say their questions were never answered. Does the president want to field some policy questions? Then, he should field some policy questions.
But the increasingly vestigial-looking White House press corps isn’t really suited for that. When “Zoe Barnes” said the beat was where “news goes to die,” she was quoting Ana Marie Cox, who said that nearly four years ago. Cox suggested, daringly, that the corps should be replaced with an ever-changing amoeba of beat reporters. “When the president speaks out on AIG, let financial and labor reporters truth-squad him,” she wrote. “When North Korea launches a missile, let defense and Asia specialists assess the White House reaction.” 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.