Showtime at the White House
The Washington press corps – working in an industry that’s been transformed by talk radio, 24-hour cable news and the Internet ” still views the White House briefing room as it was back in the 1950s ” or the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or even early ’90s. Despite dramatic changes forged by live coverage and instant analysis, the press fondly adheres to the notion that the briefing can be conducted the way it used to be.
But as Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, will soon discover, the briefing is no longer a briefing, it’s a TV show.
Gone are the days when this daily session was a serious affair, with mostly serious questions asked and mostly serious answers given. Instead, the public is now treated to a spectacle in which the media do their best to pressure the White House, regardless of which party is in power, into admitting that much of what the president is doing is wrong, and the White House pushes back. The two sides talk past each other, and the viewing public gets to watch a good fight.
Before 24-hour cable news and the Internet, reporters at the briefings asked tough questions and generally received straight answers. Because the quantity of coverage was limited and the quality was driven by the next day’s newspapers and the 6:30 evening news, with major figures such as Walter Cronkite delivering it, press secretaries didn’t have to worry that their every word or thought would instantly be reported live on the North Lawn of the White House.
There was only one news cycle, and it lasted about 24 hours. Today there’s no telling when a news cycle begins and ends. It’s 24 hours a day, and reporters are under constant pressure from editors to update their stories a dozen times a day. Reporters are in endless pursuit of “the latest development” or “this just in,” even if there are no developments of late or even if what’s “just in” is barely news at all.
Press secretaries realize that their audience isn’t only the couple of dozen reporters in the room. It’s also the hundreds of thousands of people who tune in to watch, giving the press secretary a forum to “get out the message.”
Not so long ago, when Marlin Fitzwater was press secretary to the first President Bush, TV cameras weren’t permitted to cover the briefing live. One of President Bill Clinton’s press secretaries, Mike McCurry, in an effort to accommodate the new 24-hour-a-day cable news programs, allowed his briefings to be open to TV coverage. Poor Mike. The first briefing the press covered live was on the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Since then the briefing room has never been the same.
In addition to the televised session, I used to brief the press every morning in something called “the gaggle.” It was on the record, but no TV cameras were allowed. The gaggle was more informative and serious than the briefing. Reporters didn’t posture as much for their colleagues and editors, since their reporting wasn’t on the air. If I ducked a question at the gaggle ” such as the ones I was asked immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, about whether a military strike was “coming within hours, days, weeks or months” (I was asked that actual question) ” the reporters didn’t attempt to ask me the same thing 17 different ways, as they did at the televised briefing. They got the point: The White House wasn’t answering.
Of course, the reporters aren’t the only ones who behave differently before the cameras. I acted differently, too. At the televised briefing I would sometimes lean into the podium, raise my hand and do my best to deliver a sound bite for the evening news. I liked mixing it up with reporters. I enjoyed a good intellectual televised argument. But the briefing always had an air of theater to it ” on both sides of the podium. It was easier to give thoughtful explanations of controversial issues at the gaggle or during the numerous times a day reporters strolled into my office to talk with me.
It may not be the briefing it once was, but it is still an important show.
Ari Fleischer was President Bush’s press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003.