It’s 3 p.m. and the phone in the White House press secretary’s office is ringing. It rings and rings and rings. Eventually, a recorded voice asks callers to leave a message — followed by a second voice saying the voicemail box is full.
After a full week of such calls, a human being answers. But Ben Labolt immediately bristles when asked to spell his name, refuses to give his job title, and says he is going “off the record” until I stop him to explain that the reporter grants that privilege, not the other way around — a basic journalistic standard that Labolt seems unaware of. He soon hangs up without even hearing what I called to ask about.
A return call is answered by Priya Singh, who spells her name when asked, but does not know (or will not say) what her job title is and several times describes requests for information about how the Obama administration press office is operating as a “complaint” which she would pass on. She says she is not authorized to comment, though she at one point tells me she is a spokesperson.
This might be the simply the problems of a new administration struggling to cope with a flood of calls and perhaps the complex machinery of the modern office. But it might also indicate that President Obama’s messages about open government have not reached press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff.
While it is too early to judge just how this will work out, the early signs are troubling. And interviews with a dozen Washington reporters indicate that the Obama press operation tends to embrace friendly questions, while treating skeptical questions as not worth their time or, worse, as coming from an enemy.
This is a troubling sign. There have been indications starting with the campaign that the Obama team views press coverage and questions only to be used as a tool to put out their message in their own way. And it's a philosophy that starts at the top. Obama once told a reporter during the transition to not "waste a question" when asked about a subject that was difficult and not a part of that day's message.
Obama, when touring the White House press room two days after the inauguration, was asked a tough question about the deputy Defense secretary whom Obama has appointed. The appointee had lobbied for Raytheon, but Obama' had just issued new rules against lobbyists coming to work for him. Obama responded: "I came down here to visit. I didn't come down here -- this is what happens.
"I can't end up visiting you guys and shaking hands if I am going to grilled every time I come down here."
Hint to the president ... yes, expect tough questions in the press room at all time.
In addition, Gibbs' relationship with the media has always been a bit cool, as he had limited the access to candidate Obama to only venues that put the senator in a good light. That's a tactic that played out well during a campaign, but may not sell when dealing with the leader of the free world.
There is a difficulty in what had been standard procedures. Transcripts of the gaggle and press briefings are not being released online, only edited snippets. Gibbs at one point did not know that the press wanted the "week ahead", (the president's schedule for the next week), which is traditionally released on Friday.
It's all about managing the message (and the press) for the Obama team right now, spoon-feeding only what it wants to spoon-feed, and not dealing with the difficult day-to-day questions from reporters. But why should it be difficult to spell your name or give your title? Many other reporters have describe similar difficulties in dealing with the press office. The question is whether this these missteps are a matter of getting your feet wet or is it a matter of policy? Could they be acting this way on purpose?
On the podium, Gibbs is also struggling to find his way in the early going. His answers have been evasive, and not very enlightening. Here is an exchange from an earlier press briefing:
... Among the lessons that Gibbs will learn from his predecessors is the necessity of having an answer when the tough questions start coming.
That lesson started unfolding today.
On Pakistan, was Obama consulted before the newest missile strikes or did he consult with Pakistan on that?
"I'm not going to speak about these matters today,'' Gibbs said.
"I was just a little confused because you took the question,'' said a reporter, who had asked a two-parter about this and the economic stimulus bill's job creation and got his jobs answer but not his Pakistan answer.
"I gave you my answer,'' Gibbs said.
"Second question,'' the reporter pressed.
"My answer was I wasn't going to talk about that.''
A little later, a reporter asked: "Other U.S. officials have confirmed these Predator drone airstrikes in Pakistan. What is it about not confirming whether the president was consulted?''
"I'm not going to get into these matters,'' Gibbs said.
"How does that compromise operational... ?''
"I'm not going to get into these matters,'' Gibbs said. "There are many things that you should be justifiably curious about. But I'm not going to get into talking about....''
"If other members of the U.S. government are confirming this, why is it that you can't comment?
"I'm not going to get into these matters,'' Gibbs repeated...
"There was a report today that the president is withdrawing Jim Jones and Larry Summers from the World Economic Forum at Davos,'' another reporter asked later, after a number of questions were answered at length. "Is there a reason for that? Is there some message that's trying to be sent for the fact that the two of them are not going, as originally planned?
"I don't know anything about that, so I don't have anything for you on that,'' Gibbs said. "I apologize. ''
And later, why has the White House asked for the resignation of Mark Dybul, the Global AIDS coordinator in the Bush administration, after first indicating that he might stay on the job.
"I don't have anything on the AIDS office,'' Gibbs said. "I have not read anything on that.''
Johnston's conclusion is right on the nose:
Talking to working reporters is not the only way to communicate with the people. The Obama administration seems to be embracing direct delivery of its messages via the whitehouse.gov website and YouTube. They seem to be saying “We don’t need the press to communicate our messages to the people. We can talk to the people ourselves.”
That’s entirely appropriate. But it doesn’t mean that the press should be cut out of the loop—for one thing, most Americans still get their news via traditional sources. So far the Obama administration appears to be treating its political opponents with more grace, and smarts, than journalists.