WASHINGTON — Freshly minted White House reporters these days are facing a surprising question from many of their fellow D.C. scribes: Why would anyone want that job?
Although often thought of as the most prestigious beat in political journalism, the White House is increasingly seen as a newsless land of “stenographers” — a dead end for young, ambitious reporters hoping to carve out a niche, and a constant target of criticism by the partisan public. Veteran members of the White House press corps bristle at the criticisms, even as they acknowledge the beat has lost some of its allure as the obstacles have increased.
Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the New York Times and was a correspondent there for the Washington Post during the Clinton years, said that for journalists comfortable in the chaos of Capitol Hill, the transition to Pennsylvania Ave. can produce something akin to culture shock.
“It’s not a place that’s easy to generate real scoops. Unlike on Capitol Hill, where you can roam freely and find 535 generally willing sources, plus hundreds of aides, lobbyists, and others, in the White House you face physical and information constraints that make it hard to break out,” Baker, who has been a central figure in the coverage of a Times-reading president, told BuzzFeed. “It can be frustrating and soul-killing to listen to the same talking points and spin sessions day after day.”
But while the most common journalistic criticism of White House reporters is that they serve as “stenographers” for the administration — dutifully writing stories about whatever the press secretary chooses to talk about — Baker said the quality of coverage is more a function of the journalist than the building.
“There’s a myth that all we do is take leaks on a silver platter. So the challenge is to be creative not just in uncovering information the press office doesn’t want to give out, but also in taking the information that is available and writing about it in a way that goes deeper below the surface and gives readers a better, sharper analysis of what’s really going on,” Baker said. “It’s only stenography if you choose it to be.”
Well-crafted analysis is often the best an enterprising reporter can do. The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama earned reputations for granting exceptionally little access to the press in an effort to tightly control the news cycles. That reality has been in place long enough to make its way even into fictional representations of the job.
“The White House is where news goes to die. Everything is canned, these perfectly prepared statements,” the reporter at the center of the Netflix miniseries House of Cards tells her editor, turning down the White House gig. “It’s a prestigious job, Zoe,” he protests in response.
“It used to be, when I was in ninth grade,” Barnes sneers. “Now it’s a graveyard. The only halfway interesting thing they do is serve a big dinner party once a year where they pat themselves on the back and rub shoulders with movie stars. Who needs that?”
The reporters who work the beat defend its value — but not always in the terms outsiders imagine. Olivier Knox, now chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo, said his time covering the White House was often spent debunking the public perception that his seat in the briefing room automatically made him an expert on the commander-in-chief.
“For eight years, whenever people outside the Beltway found out that I covered the Bush White House, they would ask one or both of these questions: Have you ridden on Air Force One? What’s the president really like?” he said. “They really highlight two of the pitfalls about the beat: First, it can be a thrilling, even intoxicating beat – but requires a level head to do properly. Second, it’s not like we hang out socially and he forgets we’re reporters. We don’t know what a president is really like.”
What’s more, McClatchy’s Steve Thomma, incoming president of the White House Correspondents Association, said the nature of the beat makes it a magnet for criticism by both fans and antagonists of whoever occupies Oval Office.
“There’s no doubt that partisans feel the White House press corps should be tougher when the other party has the presidency,” he said. “In the Bush years, liberals wanted the press corps to be more aggressive. And now it’s the opposite.”
But he doesn’t think that criticism extends to the “vast universe of people.”
A more pressing problem, Thomma said, is that the White House now looks at the rise of social media and sees a way to circumvent reporters to get their message out. Meanwhile, the televised briefings — which have become a daily D.C. Twitter staple — tempt journalists to make their names by asking provocative questions that might produce viral footage.
“One of the things that has definitely changed in the years I’ve been doing it is the televising of the briefings,” he said. “It made the questioning by reporters part of a story. Much more so than it had ever been. So people started criticizing the questions and the way the questions were asked, regardless of what was in the the answers reporters were getting.”
Still, the best reporters on the beat have developed their own survival guides.
Knox said he managed to rise above the deadening nature of the beat by broadening its scope.
“The best way to cover the White House is not to cover the White House. You have to reach out to Congress, to career staff at government agencies, to foreign diplomats — you’re looking for overlap in information without an overlap in agenda,” he said. “One of Ari Fleischer’s favorite dodges was to say, ‘When we have something to announce, we’ll announce it.’ Well, actually, when the Bush White House had something to announce on foreign policy, quite frequently a foreign country announced it.”
Baker takes heart in the fact that, for all its challenges, the White House is still one of the most important stories in the world — and said it’s incumbent on the reporters to get over the obstacles.
“On the White House beat, you have to do more with less,” he said. “But if we can’t make the president of the United States an interesting story, then we’re not trying hard enough.”
And Thomma, who has collected a number of journalism awards over the years, said there are ways to beat the system, but he wasn’t keen on revealing them.
“That is going to require me giving a rival advice on how to compete,” he quipped. “That part you’re just going to have to learn by yourself.”