Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reporters' Frustration With Obama Team Growing

There are signs that any honeymoon period between President Barack Obama and the White House press corps is morphing into a first quarrel.

White House reporters at Press Secretary Robert Gibbs briefing expressed their frustrations today at a number of issues that have cropped up in the first hours of the Obama administration. Namely a re-do on the presidential oath that had no pool reporter or video representation, and a question over why ABC got exclusive access to the president after it sponsored one of the inaugural balls.

Michael Calderone of Politico reports tonight:

Veteran CBS newsman Bill Plante was one of the most vocal critics, questioning the White House’s handling of Wednesday night’s second swearing in – which was covered by just a four-reporter print pool that didn’t include a news photographer or TV correspondent.

He also asked new press secretary Robert Gibbs why ABC, which paid millions to host the DC Neighborhood Ball, was granted the only inauguration day interview with President Obama – a move he equated to “pay to play.”

“We have a tradition here of covering the president,” said Plante, who is covering his fourth administration.

Gibbs defended the White House’s moves, insisting aides acted in a “way that was upfront and transparent” in allowing the standard pool into the swearing-in. And Obama himself seemed mindful of making a good impression, paying a surprise visit to the White House pressroom a few hours after the briefing.

Transparency was one of Obama's campaign mantras. But there have been problems in the first few hours of the administration. If the chief justice was invited back to re-administer the oath of office over an abundance of caution, why not allow a pool reporter and video? Only still images from White House photographer Pete Souza were released, and The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse refused to use them in protest.

Wasn't the idea to show the world that the president said the words in correct order? Not that it legally matters much, but taking the oath again does squelch any loon lawsuits. So why not make it public? Gibbs' answer to the question of why not show the world was "well, I was there." That doesn't cut it.

The ABC question is a good one, and the Obama team has to come up with an explanation. Are future interviews going to granted to news organizations that make some kind of financial contribution?

Calderone also points out confusion about background briefings:
Before Gibbs took the podium, reporters were given a background briefing under an agreement to only attribute information to “senior administration officials” — a policy some news organizations object to as a matter of policy.

But when Gibbs let slip the name of one briefer, Greg Craig, a couple times, The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman asked, “Are we allowed to repeat that name?”

During the earliest days of the Clinton administration, such abrupt changes in the traditional press access were often met with harsh criticism from the briefing room pack, most notably, the blocking off of access to the office of then press secretary George Stephanopoulos.

Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who succeeded Stephanopoulos, said in PBS’s “The Clinton Years” that the move “made the press very angry because they lost access to a part of the building that they had had access to.”

“And it didn't serve us,” she continued. “And it was stupid and didn't last very long. I can't remember when the decision was made and the door was finally reopened but it was a complete waste of energy. It alienated people for no purpose. It served nothing. It served no one. And it was a rookie, rookie mistake.”

Myers said Thursday that the Obama’s decision to bar widespread access to the re-do of the oath wasn’t in the same category as shutting access to the press office, but wouldn’t help in relations with the media.

The Bush White House would normally post transcripts to press briefings here. The site now has a few PR links, including the pdfs of the executive orders and a partial list of appointees (here is a more complete list), but no sign of where to get the official transcripts. is publishing the transcripts. It's not a good sign early on if the Bush White House was more transparent than Obama's. Ellen Moran, director of communications, and Gibbs have a bit of a learning curve ahead of him.

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