BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. The digital revolution has not only pitted the traditional Washington media in a battle for audience with competitors. It has put them in a battle for an audience with certain key government figures, notably the president of the United States. George W. Bush used to brag about avoiding the media filter. Barack Obama makes his predecessor look like Mr. Accessible. A recent Politico poll shows that 8 times as many White House correspondents think Bush was more open than Obama, than think the opposite. And, as I discovered in an earlier expedition, the press corps can do little about it but fume.
BOB GARFIELD: Marine One circles in the winter rain and alights on the White House South Lawn, returning from a staged event at a Virginia Shipyard to gin up support for the administration’s revenue proposals. President Obama de-copters and strides purposefully across the soggy grass toward the Oval Office. Witnessing this extremely high-level walking are some 50 observers huddled under umbrellas and making small talk. Cameras click and whirr in perfunctory unison. The return leg from Newport News to Washington “No News” has been duly recorded. Ladies and gentlemen, your White House Press Corps in action.
PRESS SEC. JAY CARNEY: In anticipation of the meeting Friday, the President did invite the four leaders…
[SOUND UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Inside the briefing room that’s Press Secretary Jay Carney lulling his audience into a state of unconsciousness. As blogger Ana Marie Cox once put it, “the White House is where news goes to die.” Or at least slip into a coma. I asked CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett about being disrespected by the administration, but “walking dead” seemed, rude so I used the slightly less perjorative term, “stenographer.”
MAJOR GARRETT: The President has a message. He’s the leader of the free world, and his message deserves to be communicated. That is a prerogative of the presidency. Conveying that accurately is not stenography. And I don’t consider that beneath me.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is, what is going around him? Once upon a time, his was an elite circle -- the only intermediary between the White House and the electorate. Those dynamics every now and then yielded genuine drama, such as the 1974 confrontation between CBS’ Dan Rather and President Richard Nixon.
RICHARD NIXON: Are you running for something?
DAN RATHER: No sir, Mr. President. Are you?
BOB GARFIELD: Tens of millions of people tuned in to what were then all three networks gasped at Rather’s impertinence, but today's reporters and photographers have been marginalized by a gazillion other channels, Twitter,and between 2 ferns Facebook, the White House’s ongoing blog. The “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit and on TV not much evening news but plenty of Live at Five, David Letterman, and The View. The White House is now itself a kind of media house. Ann Compton of ABC News:
ANN COMPTON: They become publishers, they become journalists, they become their own advertising agency.
BOB GARFIELD: Never mind one-on-ones with the President, says Compton, who’s covering her seventh presidential administration, most of the time reporters can’t even get access enough to shout out questions at a “grip and grin” session.
ANN COMPTON: We don't cover Oval Office photo ops, we don't cover many of the meetings he has when he meets with people on immigration or gun violence or the fiscal cliff, the meetings with Congress. It's been six months since I've even been in the Oval Office on my turn to be the pool member in there. To shut the media out to the extent this administration has, I think, is a disgrace.
BOB GARFIELD: A complaint that White House Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest shrugged off.
JOSHUA EARNEST: Sometimes the President’s commitment to engaging with the American public means that there are some members of the White House Press Corps who get a little frustrated that they’re, that they’re not getting as many interviews as they would like. But, but at the end of the day, the President’s responsibility is not to the members of the White House Press Corps, it’s actually to the American public. In order to fulfill his responsibility, to communicate his priorities, the President needs to avail himself of all the opportunities to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, the president’s responsibility to the public is NOT to communicate his priorities; it is to answer for his actions. Hence the P.R. strategy to answer easier questions. While the captive Washington Press Corps cooled its heels approximately 20 feet away recently, the President sat down with anchors from eight local stations from around the country, among them Kevin Ogle of KFOR, Oklahoma City, who didn’t necessarily go for the jugular.
KEVIN OGLE: You know, here I am, some local yokel from Oklahoma City [LAUGHS] getting to go up and interview the President, and we had li mited time, and so, there’s not a lot of opportunity to ask follow-up questions, you know, or to take him to task on things.
BOB GARFIELD: In other words, no Nixon versus Rather moments?
KEVIN OGLE: [LAUGHS] No, it wasn’t like that at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Instead, Ogle passed along viewer questions, including one from basketball star Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
KEVIN OGLE: This one comes from KD. Putting your loyalty to the Bulls aside –
[PRESIDENT OBAMA LAUGHS]
- what are your thoughts on Oklahoma City’s Thunder basketball team? You know who KD is?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I do.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’ve had a chance to play with him. He’s a, he’s a great guy. You know, his, his - his mother and his grandmother still live in this area, and -
BOB GARFIELD: In contrast, Susan Peters of KAKE, KAKE Wichita, was fairly aggressive in questioning Obama’s plan to cut tax exemptions for Kansas’s big corporate aircraft industry. That’s right after she handed the President a scrapbook she made of his mom’s Kansas heritage. I wondered if she thought she and her local colleagues had been fully respected.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you get the sense that they looked at you, all eight of you, like eight Ron Burgundys?
RON BURGUNDY: I don’t know how to put this, but I’m a pretty big deal.
SUSAN PETERS: [LAUGHS] I don’t know if they looked at us like Ron Burgundys but...To be honest with you, it was thrilling. It was thrilling being in the White House interviewing the President of the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Before I left the briefing room one day this week, I ran into E.J. Dionne, inveterate political analyst for the Washington Post, PBS and NPR. I asked him if this administration has perfected the end around.
E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think all presidents try to get around the Press Corps and now there are more opportunities to do it. But there is still a very large share of the population that’s going to get its news mediated. No matter how much we talk about the irrelevance of traditional journalism, it’s still a big enough audience that they have to worry about it.
E.J. DIONNE: Yep, are we ready?
BOB GARFIELD: And with that, Dionne went into a briefing about the sequestration showdown for a handful of the Press Corps - on background, of course. So no, the lights in the White House briefing room won’t be switched off anytime soon. The place still plays an important role.
PRESS SEC. JAY CARNEY: We talked at length about how… [under]
BOB GARFIELD: But, to understand how things have changed on merely needs to look up at the podium. As Jay Carney reads scripted answers to a reporter’s question, just behind him, next to the iconic White House Seal, hangs a giant flat screen TV, scrolling all the up-to-the-minute headlines. The source? The White House blog.