WASHINGTON — President Obama held an off-the-record meeting with select reporters from some of the nation’s largest print and online outlets Monday, in the White House’s latest effort to placate an increasingly restive press corps.
White House officials regularly meet with reporters for so-called “background briefing sessions,” where the attendees cannot be mentioned by name nor quoted directly, but Monday’s meeting was different. Initially billed as a conversation with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the president made a surprise appearance — a very unusual move — and the White House placed the proceedings off the record beforehand. The meeting came amid a series of scandals crashing over the White House that has placed the administration on defense in a way it hasn’t been until now.
Relations between the press and the White House have been especially fraught since last month’s revelation that the Justice Department had covertly collected phone records from Associated Press reporters in pursuit of locating the source of a national security leak. When the Justice Department sought to hold an off-the-record meeting with journalists to discuss its investigation, news outlets pushed back, with The New York Times publicly refusing to attend.
Reporters who attended Monday’s session with the president were loathe to discuss it with BuzzFeed, citing the White House’s stipulation that the meeting remain off the record. But the session came after the White House announced a “travel/photo lid” for the day — White House parlance for no more events, and the signal for the pool reporter to go home — and reporters from The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Time, McClatchy, Politico, Tribune, NPR, Bloomberg, USA Today, AFP, Yahoo and other outlets were milling around the briefing room waiting to be called in. In total, about two dozen reporters were included. (BuzzFeed was not invited to the meeting, although a reporter, who did not know the president would be present, requested to be included.)
New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker said reporters had not been told that Obama would be in the session, and that if he had known, he and his editors would have reconsidered whether to attend.
“If we had, I think we would have had a conversation here in our office first about whether to attend or not. We tend to evaluate these on a case-by-case basis,” Baker told BuzzFeed. “Our concern about off-the-record sessions with the president is that they not become substitutes for opportunities to ask questions and get answers on the record, which after all is our job.”
Off-the-record meetings like Monday’s — and a similar one with broadcast outlets a couple weeks earlier — are a historical traditional that has dwindled since the days when John F. Kennedy regularly entertained favored reporters in his office. Baker and others said the meeting was valuable from a journalistic perspective, giving reporters a chance to hear what the president is thinking directly from the president’s own mouth — even if they can’t share that wisdom directly with their readers.