Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America
Pulling a collective Rip Van Winkle, the White House press corps has awakened from its extended nap just in time to aggressively press the new Democratic administration, just as it dogged the last Democratic president during his first days in office back in the 1990s. Conveniently skipped over during the press corps' extended bout of shut-eye? The Bush years, of course.
Suddenly revved up and vowing to keep a hawk-like watch on the Obama administration ("I want to hold these guys accountable for what they say and do") and all of a sudden obsessed with trivia, while glomming onto nitpicking, gotcha-style critiques, Beltway reporters have tossed aside the blanket of calm that had descended on them during the previous administration, a blanket of calm that defined their Bush coverage.
Can't say I'm surprised about the sudden change in behavior, though. Taking the long view, I recently went back and contrasted how the press covered the first days and weeks of Clinton's first term in 1993 with its coverage of Bush's arrival in 2001. The difference in tone and substance was startling. (Think bare-knuckled vs. cottony soft.)
One explanation at the time of the Bush lovefest was that reporters and pundits were just so burnt out by the Clinton scandal years that they needed some downtime. They needed to relax; it was human nature. Conversely, the opposite now seems to be true: Because the press dozed for so long - because it sleepwalked through the Bush years - it just had to spring back to life with the new administration. It's human nature.
When contrasting the early Clinton and Bush coverage, I noted it would be deeply suspicious if, in 2009, the press managed to turn up the emotional temperature just in time to cover another Democratic administration. But wouldn't you know it, the press corps' alarm went off right on time for Obama's arrival last week, with the Beltway media taking down off the shelf the dusty set of contentious, in-your-face rules of engagement they practiced during the Clinton years and putting into safe storage the docile, somnambulant guidelines from the Bush era. In other words, one set of rules for Clinton and Obama, another for Bush. One standard for the Democrats; a separate, safer one, for the Republican.
"I don't think there is a honeymoon" for Obama, Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC's World News, announced last week. "The accountability starts immediately." See, accountability suddenly reigns supreme. Just like right after Clinton was sworn in. But Bush in 2001? Not so much.
For folks who, understandably, weren't paying attention 16 years ago or who haven't read up on their White House media history, it's hard to appreciate just how uncanny the similarities are between how the suddenly hyperactive, conflict-driven press corps (baited by the right to prove their independence) is dealing with Obama's first days and how the hyperactive press dealt with Clinton's opening days, as journalists then also seemed determined to prove their un-liberalness.
The early Clinton and Obama scripts are at times interchangeable (i.e. baseless, negative stories like the cost of Obama's inauguration and the cost of Bill Clinton's haircut). The only part that doesn't fit in with the rest of the mosaic is how the press lovingly treated the Republican in 2001 during his arrival in town.
The media's abrupt transformation last week in terms of greeting the new president - a transformation that unfolded with great pride and even apparent glee among reporters - was showcased during the new administration's first White House press briefing, where many reporters, previously comatose during the news-free Bush-era briefings, rose up in anger and demanded answers during a contentious session.
Although President Obama swept into office pledging transparency and a new air of openness, the press hammered spokesman Robert Gibbs for nearly an hour over a slate of perceived secretive slights that have piled up quickly for the new administration. It wasn't pretty.
And so it went at the first official White House briefing of the new Obama administration - a fiery back and forth dispelling the notion that journalists would go easy on the guy that many reports show it went easy on during the marathon primary and general election campaigns.
Halfway through the interrogation, a reporter asked succinctly: "Is the honeymoon over already?"
Curl also reported there was yelling and shouting from journalists inside the White House press room that day. (One "spat.") Now, if you're having trouble recalling all the times the same press corps "hammered" Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer for nearly an hour - yelled, shouted, and spat questions at him - back in January 2001, don't worry, your memory isn't going bad. It's just that those contentious hardball sessions never actually happened.
In fact, the media's lullaby treatment of Bush at the outset of 2001 became so pronounced that even some members of the Beltway press corps acknowledged the unfolding phenomenon and how it so obviously contrasted with the high-octane coverage the outgoing Democratic administration had been bombarded with. "The truth is, this new president [Bush] has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton," Politico's John Harris, then with The Washington Post, wrote during Bush's first months in office. (Harris went on to cheer, "[G]ood for Washington in giving a new president a break at the start.")
The other Clinton/Obama connection is how the press detests the way new Democratic White Houses treat the media. Of course, the irony is thick, considering the utter contempt the Bush White House displayed toward the press. The way former chief of staff Andrew Card famously dismissed the press as just another D.C. special interest group desperately seeking access, the way aides quickly formed habits of not returning reporters' calls for weeks and months, and the way the Bush White House waved in a former male prostitute using an alias and without any valid journalistic credentials to toss softball questions during briefings. That's how Republicans brushed back the press. But it's the Democrats whom reporters lash out at. It's the Democrats whom reporters denounce with righteous indignation within days of the new administration's taking office.
Back at the outset of 1993, journalists complained that the new Clinton communications team limited their access by closing off portions of the White House to reporters, that aides didn't sufficiently schmooze journalists, and that the new president did not have enough formal press conferences. (And don't even ask what reporters did when their pals in the White House travel office got fired.) "They're dissing us," Los Angeles Times California editor David Lauter, then-White House reporter, complained in April 1993.
Well, fast-forward to last week, and it's déjà vu all over again. Here's how Politico cataloged the media's petty laundry list of grievances that sparked the press "frustration":
There have been a handful of rocky moments so far. Some press staffers found their name cards misspelled on Wednesday and phone lines weren't properly hooked up. Reporters trying to reach the press staff got emails bounced back.
And in the hours before Gibbs' briefing, the northwest gate of the White House started running out of temporary passes.
No wonder NBC's Chuck Todd compared the White House press room to Gitmo - reporters' names were misspelled!
It was telling that in its piece about Obama's press woes, Politico noted how the Clinton administration had also run into trouble with the press over issues of access. Noticeably absent from the Politico article was any mention of how the Bush administration dramatically limited media access, regularly cordoned off information from the press, and warned reporters that edgy questions posed at the daily sessions were "noted in the building." That's all been tossed down the memory hole. It's only new Democratic presidents who are asked to play nice with the press and get badgered when they do not.
But back to the showdown at the White House briefing last week: CNN's Ed Henry, while appearing on The Situation Room, stressed to host Wolf Blitzer that he didn't think the new White House press secretary had answered his query that day about Obama's pick to become deputy defense secretary. Think about that premise for a moment (i.e. a White House press secretary artfully dodges a reporter's question) while recalling what the White House press briefings were like for reporters under Bush. Dan Froomkin at washingtonpost.com did his best to capture the vacuous nature of those exercises:
The spin, the secrets, the non-answers and the unprecedented lack of access are an insult not only to journalists, but to the public that depends on us to fully inform them about what's really going on in the White House.
Added blogger and J-school professor Jay Rosen:
The point here was to underline how pointless it was even to ask questions of the Bush White House. And reporters got that point, though they missed the larger picture I am describing. Many times they wondered what they were doing there.
And TNR's Jonathan Chait:
Much of the time [Ari] Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises - or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether.
But suddenly for Henry, when a Democrat's in power, it's news when a White House press person doesn't answer a reporter's question during a daily briefing. After eight years of having a succession of Bush flacks who, almost with robotic precision, refused to answer weeks, months, and years' worth of daily briefing questions from reporters - to the point where journalists stopped showing up at the daily briefings or even trying to draw out useful information from the uncooperative White House press operation - against that backdrop, the CNN correspondent thought it was newsworthy that his question wasn't answered by the new Democratic White House spokesman.
In other words, a routine, everyday press occurrence under Bush (a reporter gets a non-answer) suddenly transformed itself into a news event under Obama.
Do reporters deserve to get straight answers at the White House? Yes. Was Henry's query a legitimate one? Absolutely. But when the non-answers came from Bush spokesmen and women, the working press corps seemed to shrug it off. On Obama's first day, though, an unsatisfactory response was suddenly worthy of discussion on cable television. Why? From the press' perspective, Democratic administrations are supposed to answer all questions. They're supposed to grant carte blanche access to the press. Republicans could do whatever they wanted to the daily briefing and defang the process to the point of irrelevancy. But Democrats? Sorry, a different set of rules apply.
That double standard explained why there was so much media chatter last week after Obama, while making a good-natured social visit to the White House press workspace, waved off a substantive question about a high-level appointment of his. Pressed again by Politico's Jonathan Martin, Obama responded good-naturedly, "We will be having a press conference, at which time you can feel free to [ask] questions. Right now, I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself to you guys. That's all I was trying to do." ("A testy exchange" gasped Politico.)
But did the press ever needle Bush with uncomfortable questions when he made social calls? Please note that in August 2006, when Bush made a rare unannounced visit to the White House press room - and this was years after Bush had broadcast his open contempt for the press - there were no tough questions. As Froomkin reported at the time:
So there was something entirely appropriate about Bush stopping by the briefing room yesterday not to answer (or even be asked) a single substantive question - but to insult pretty much everyone in spitting distance.
Bush mocked members of the media to their face that day by tossing out several insults, and none of them asked a substantive question. Obama was gracious with reporters and was rewarded with a gotcha moment, which the press corps then obsessed over.
More proof that the Rip Van Winkle press corps has been stirred from its slumber.
Editor's note: Eric Boehlert has been a senior writer for Salon.com and a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America. Click here for more Media Matters posts.