BOB GARFIELD: Leaders of 47 nations gathered in Washington this week for the Nuclear Security Summit, along with press corps from around the world. In his opening remarks, President Barack Obama called the Summit a historic occasion. He said that nuclear security is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. It’s a matter of humankind’s very survival. And that’s about when he kicked the media out of the room.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And with that, I'm going to ask that we take a few moments to allow the press to exit before our first session.
BOB GARFIELD: The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank served up a scathing summary of the White House’s treatment of the press during the Summit. He wrote that reporters were shut out of most proceedings and had virtually no chance for questions. Milbank admits this isn't a new problem. The media always want more access. But the Obama administration’s behavior was - a bit much.
DANA MILBANK: There’s no shortage of press whining but people who have been covering these summits since I was a kid said they've never seen anything quite like it. Now, what was different here is you did have 50 world leaders there - all, you know, from places like China and Russia, where they don't have the same press freedoms. It seemed to me the President had a chance to show what it’s like to have a free society and a free press. Instead, we had the people from the Saudi press agency coming into these meetings and being ushered out after like 15 seconds and not being allowed to hear what we once called “the leader of the free world” was saying.
BOB GARFIELD: If we're going to talk the talk, we got to walk the walk, eh?
DANA MILBANK: Look, the President is free to stiff the press as much as he wants. He's been doing that a lot lately, everything from going to his kid’s soccer game without alerting the protective White House press pool that usually follows the President around, just in case the unthinkable happens. He’s had his meeting with Netanyahu without allowing the press to record it. He’s signed his executive order on abortion without having the press record that event. He can get away with that, and he can get away with this, obviously. The question is, is that the image that you want to project to the world? We literally had the case here where Hu Jintao, the President of China, was more chatty with the Chinese media than the President [LAUGHS] was with us.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say one of the most appalling details was the way the meetings with other foreign leaders, the so-called bilateral meetings, were reported to the press. Typically, the President stands up with his opposite number from, you know, pick a country, and each takes questions from their own domestic press corps. What was released after the bilateral meetings at the Nuclear Summit?
DANA MILBANK: Well, you know, they're sort of these anodyne statements. They’re called read-outs. My favorite one was after the meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, and it said, “The President told the prime minister that he’s very fond of Pakistan.”
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Stop the presses!
DANA MILBANK: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: I think the press had some expectation that President Obama, who ran substantially on transparency, would be far more forthcoming than George W. Bush who, you know, explicitly said that he wanted to avoid the media filter and could go directly –
DANA MILBANK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - to his various constituencies. Was this Summit emblematic of the way the White House press operation is run in general?
DANA MILBANK: I think it is part of a pattern. I think people did have sort of an unreasonable expectation that suddenly Obama was elected and sunlight would flow through the White House and, you know, we'd all be invited to watch deliberations in the Oval Office. That was unrealistic to expect. He has made some strides. Certainly, the - the good government groups, some of them give him high marks for opening up records, that sort of thing. But I think in terms of dealing with the press, it really has been a disappointment, by many measures. He’s taken fewer questions even than George W. Bush, who was often overtly hostile to the press. And I think this is not anything that has to do with ideology. It’s just a president saying, I have the ability to control the way the message gets out there, and I don't want to open myself up to the rabble of the press asking me questions that I might not want to talk about.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the suggestions is that because this was a nuclear summit and because these are security issues that were discussed, that this was not the subject or the time and place for foreign leaders or the President to just be kind of riffing. Do you think it was the underlying subject matter that made this such a closed affair?
DANA MILBANK: No, I think the technical term for that argument is hogwash. You don't discuss classified secretive things with 50 world leaders, many of whom are not necessarily sympathetic with your interests. Now, President Sarkozy of France who did actually sit down and have a nice chat with his reporters, said nothing of importance was discussed in the meetings, itself. What happens is on the sidelines where you have the one-on-ones with the leaders. So I think that clearly makes the point that there was no reason not to have the public get a glimpse of this, since what was going on inside those rooms was just speechifying anyway.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you said the W word, “whining.” And let's discuss this, because when you wrote your piece, The Washington Post website was flooded with criticism of you for complaining and whining and being petulant. What do you make of that?
DANA MILBANK: Look, it’s to be expected. You make no friends sort of defending the free press. I wrote the same stories, you know, different circumstances, but the same stories about the Bush administration. People on the left would generally say, right on, and people on the right would say I was whining. Now we have people on the left saying I'm whining and the people on the right say, hey, he’s your guy, it’s your fault.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in the end, the President actually did, as you mentioned, have a news conference. Do you think it was a useful exercise?
DANA MILBANK: Well, sure. I think he did take eight questions for about 20 minutes, and they were serious questions, and they raised the kind of points that people might be wondering, say, look, you - you know, you say you have an agreement here, but it’s not binding. You say the Chinese are cooperating with sanctions on Iran, but they're not really saying that. Why isn't Israel being forced to declare its nuclear weapons? These are not the sort of happy things you get in the communiqués or the blessed read-outs from meetings.
BOB GARFIELD: And what about his answers? The President [LAUGHS] said one thing, the Chinese suggested another. How did it play out at the conference?
DANA MILBANK: The President did some hemming and hawing on, on the questions of China, on the questions of Iran and Israel, and, and that’s his right, to hem and haw. But the public should get a chance to see that when tough questions are being put to him, how he deals with it.
BOB GARFIELD: Dana, thank you.
DANA MILBANK: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Dana Milbank is a political reporter at The Washington Post. He also writes the “Washington Sketch” column about political theater in the capitol.