RALEIGH — Members of the elite White House press corps this week have acted more like animals that have been kept in captivity for so long that they can’t find news unless it is forced down their open gullets at a daily press briefing.
The Cheney hunting accident story embarrassingly revealed this fact, which probably explains the greater-than-normal anger and outrage of White House correspondents over the last few days. “Why weren’t we told?” has been the refrain, not “How did we miss that story?”
Imagine if just one of the reporters assigned to cover the vice president had staked out the entrance to that ranch in Texas instead of waiting in some warm spot to be spoon fed by a flak. At some point they would have seen an ambulance arrive. Don’t you think that would have piqued some reportorial interest? But apparently that’s not the way reporters who cover the president and vice president work.
In truth, the White House press corps does very little news gathering, if by that we mean beating the bushes to find out things. Instead, they sit in a comfortable auditorium and wait to be told things. One White House correspondent rarely scoops the others, evidently because the correspondents would rather have the security of getting news handed to them collectively than face the prospect of missing a big story.
I have never covered the White House but I had a good friend who was intimately involved with running the press room in a prior administration. After working there for a while he couldn’t understand why any self-respecting reporter would want to cover the White House. Everything was orchestrated. Nothing was spontaneous. There was a gentleman’s agreement to make sure no one missed out on a news break, even to the point that, at the end of the day, a light would go on in the press room to alert reporters that they could leave with the confidence that no news would emanate in their absence.
I don’t know if this system is still in use, but, as you can imagine, that took away the advantage that any reporter who hung around longer than others might have over those who chose to leave early. Under that system there was no reward for initiative and no penalty for sloth. Even if big news were to break while reporters were gone, it was understood that either a) it would be held until they all came into the press room, or b) all would be phoned and notified at the same time.
As practiced in most instances, reporting is the ultimate individual competitive exercise. You match wits with a clear rival — usually that reporter for the other paper in town — and you do high-fives when you beat them into print with a big story. That’s the thrill of reporting. It certainly isn’t the money.
For many reporters, becoming a White House correspondent is the Holy Grail, the zenith of a reporting career. These are, no doubt, among the best reporters in the land — at least when they arrive. But the skills that made them great as reporters in the first place are of little value in the new assignment, and they soon atrophy.
After a while it would never occur to them to hang out at the front gate of a ranch in Texas looking for news. Unless Cindy Sheehan’s there, of course.
Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper, Carolina Journal.