Ana Marie Cox Fisks The White House Press Corps

by Brien Jackson

Ana Marie Cox had a very nice article in The Washington Post laying bare how downright useless the White House press corps, and singaling out the problem at the same time:

Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent. A thorough debunking of the Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers’ State Department and national security correspondents. Bush’s abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe’s legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off The Washington Post’s Metro desk.

Here are some stories that reporters working the White House beat have produced in the past few months: Pocket squares are back! The president is popular in Europe. Vegetable garden! Joe Biden occasionally says things he probably regrets. Puppy!

It’s not that the reporters covering the president are bad at their jobs. Most are experienced journalists at the top of their game — and they’re wasted at the White House, where scoops are doled out, not uncovered. The day of a typical White House correspondent consists, literally, of waiting to be told things. Legitimate security concerns and a tightly scripted political world keep the presidential press corps physically corralled and informationally hostage.

Of course, someone has to keep an eye on the presidency. What’s wrong with the White House beat is that it’s considered prestigious, as though the address the reporters work at makes their work special.

This is, I think, another one of those examples where the news industry, and particularly newspapers, and slowly killing themselves with their own self-righteousness. It’s another symptom of the inability to move past the thinking that “this is just the way it’s done.” Cox is completely right, on both counts, however; the White House beat is considered extremely prestigious, and it’s also completely useless. If you work the White House beat, you spend your day asking a professional whose job it is to “manage” you questions they’re not going to ask, then everyone writes a story about it. Other than that, you’re basically waiting around for the White House press shop to drop a story on you, or maybe answer some questions they don’t mind answering. But you’re not in a position to do any digging (what’s Jakey going to do, shove his way past the Secret Service into the Oval Office to doggedly pressure President Obama to answer his questions?), and you’re away from the sort of places (Congress, executive agencies and departments, etc.) where the news is actually made. But hey, you get to go to work in the White House, and every so often you might get to be seen on telelvision (in prime time!) asking the President of the United States a question. And you get paid an awful lot of money, certainly more than the investigative reporter who’s really breaking big stories, an infinitely more labor intensive operation. So it’s damn good work, if you can get it. But it certainly doesn’t add any real value to the public knowledge bank, and, much like Op-Eds, so long as newspapers are paying their White House correspondents a lot of money, and not even considering more innovative, cost effective ways to cover the White House, I will continue to be rather thankful that brands like The Washington Post and New York Times are dying.