By Helen Gibson
Although writing from slightly different perspectives, both Ken Auletta and Patrick Sloyan argue that the White House press corps has grown weaker and less influential during the Bush and Obama presidencies. Keeping in mind our conversation on Wednesday about how journalism changed during the 1990s, what do you think about the future prospects of the White House press corps. Does the drum fire of criticism from President Trump help or hurt the standing of the press corps? In particular, address the assertion that the press is not a representative of the public interest but simply another special interest group pursuing its own goals.
As I read this week’s readings — “Fortress Bush: How the White House keeps the press under control,” a 2004 New Yorker article by Ken Auletta, and “Do we need a White House press corps?” published in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2016 — I couldn’t help but start to question the effectiveness of the White House press corps in their job of covering the president and providing the American people with information about the highest public office in the United States.
However, as I read, it almost began to seem as if the effectiveness of the press corps depends, at least in part, on the levels of access and information that a current administration provides. In other words, the tone and tenor of the press’ relationship with the president seems to rest largely on that which is set by the president himself.
In a way, it seems like the press corps has grown weaker because of recent administrations’ distaste for interacting with members of the news media (though from Bush to Obama to Trump this has been expressed in vastly different ways). Perhaps news organization should put more pressure on various administrations to restore the relationship with the press to what it once was — more access to the president himself, with more of a regular, steady stream of information (even if that information is skewed in the administration’s favor).
Of course, one must recognize that the relationship between the White House and the Press has never been perfect by any means. But, one must also realize that open communication and a free flow of information from the White House to the president is essential to keeping the public informed, which, in turn, is essential to American democracy.
The Columbia Journalism Review piece made it seem like the Obama administration got away with not working with journalists. “In some ways, Obama has achieved the long-sought presidential goal of bypassing the White House press corps,” that article stated.
This should not be the case. Journalists and news media organizations must find ways to get administrations to work with them, for the sake of a free flow of information and American democracy. All the while, they must recognize that talk is cheap; merely sitting in a White House press briefing does elicit the best possible coverage of a president. For their own purposes, most administrations are quick to stick to talking points and pre-rehearsed agendas.
Knowing this, reporters must move beyond press briefings, working towards more enterprise and investigative reporting on the issues surrounding an administration.
Yes, it is important to be in the White House press briefing rooms, but it’s also important to be doing real, valuable reporting outside of that arena, as well, because even when members of the media are welcomed into the White House and allowed to ask all the questions they want, they’re still likely to get scripted, on-message answers.
The Bush administration expressed a particularly interesting idea — that the White House press corps is little more than a special interest group that pursues its own goals and is not representative of the public’s interest. In a way, this may be the case. Certainly, members of the press have goals and objectives in mind each time they enter the White House.
But I have to reject the notion that the press is not representative of the public’s interest. I think most journalists would agree that the reason they do their work (and for many, the reason they got into journalism in the first place) is to represent the public’s interest. Of course, this is a lofty goal, and it’s one that is not always flawlessly achieved. But, I think most journalists are earnestly trying.
And, in an era of alternative facts, fake news, and information overload, reputable news outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and others are probably the closest thing to a true, unbiased representative of the public’s interest that exists.
If the press is not allowed the opportunity to do this job, who will? Probably no one — at least, no one with the same objective and unbiased standards that journalists try to maintain.
That’s why I think the White House press corps, though not perfect, is still valuable and important to American journalism and democracy.