Amid the shock at the suggestion that Donald Trump might move the White House press corps out of the West Wing, it was easy to forget just how disliked the press corps is by journalists, who have spoken frequently about how frustrating, boring, and unfulfilling the job can be.
According to Reid Cherlin, former assistant press secretary under Obama and current supervising writer for Vice News Tonight, it's no less satisfying from the other side. Cherlin speaks with Brooke about his experiences on the administration's end of the press corps, and how the whole system could be improved.
Guerillero Heroico (El Che Vive!) by Bill Laswell
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though Trump eventually backed down, the press is still facing an uncertain future under a president openly hostile to the mainstream media. And when he gave his final press conference this week, President Obama addressed that anxiety.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s the point of this relationship. You're not supposed to be sycophants. You’re supposed to be skeptics. You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you're supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power. And having you in this building has made this place work better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: About that last part, what if being effective skeptics and helping our democracy means getting out of the White House. Writing in Poynter this week, Benjamin Mullin pointed out that virtually no landmark stories have ever emerged from the White House press corps. Reporter Ana Marie Cox wrote in 2009 that it was more often where news goes to die. In 2014, Reporter Glenn Thrush said that it was like covering a horse race from inside a horse.
And according to Reid Cherlin, who was an assistant press secretary under President Obama, it's none too pleasant from the other side either.
REID CHERLIN: Well, because it takes place in this room that you’re so used to seeing on TV, it has an air of importance around it and it's exciting. Everybody really respects it as a tradition. But it ends up feeling often like a chore, or it did when I worked there. And, and I want to stipulate that this was years ago. This is the first two years of President Obama’s term.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm sure things have radically changed since then.
REID CHERLIN: [LAUGHS] Yeah, you’re right. It’s gotten much better. They’ve totally reinvented it. The, the truth is the format hasn't changed since the ‘90s, really. The two rules would be don’t lie and make no news.
It was part of my job as a young person in the press office to help then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and then Jay Carney prepare for the briefing every day. So we would put together a briefing book that had tabs for different topics we expected questions on. And each of those pages in that book would have an affirmative statement at the top of what our main point would be. It also had Q&A bullet points underneath for if we got pressed. But really, there weren’t a lot of circumstances under which the press secretary was going to go farther than what was written on that page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess the question is, how substantive is the stuff on that page? Yahoo! News wrote an article in 2013 called “The top 9,486 ways Jay Carney won't answer your questions.” Why can't this be a forum for actually answering questions? What is inherent in the way these proceedings are structured that makes that almost impossible?
REID CHERLIN: The sort of dark secret of Washington is that most days are slow news days. Without question, there are a lot of days when something big is happening, and I don't think anyone would argue that briefings should never happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
REID CHERLIN: It’s that everything happens by default every day and when you put it on TV it has the effect of making everyone a character. I spoke to Mike McCurry, press secretary under President Clinton as I was doing research and he talked about the first time that the reverse shot was allowed in the briefing room. The reporter asked, and I believe it was Scott Pelley of CBS who was then a White House correspondent, can we put a camera up on the dais so that it shoots me asking the question? McCurry described that moment as everything feeling like it changed, because then everybody wanted to get the reverse shot. And this isn’t the main problem with the briefing, but it is a problem with the briefing. The first row of reporters, which includes most of the TV network reporters, they ask the same question because they all want to get the tape for their package that evening. So you basically have the same question being asked eight times in a row –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Uh –
REID CHERLIN: - which takes up a lot of time, and by the time you get to the second row or the third row, people more print focused who aren’t, you know, really trying to get sometimes more nuanced information, the mood is already sour, people are annoyed, everybody’s bored.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another interesting point, it really would undermine the camaraderie of the press corps, We noted last week that when Jim Acosta of CNN was shut down by Trump, the rest of the press corps did not pick up his question and run to his defense. They, as Bob said, ran over his body, instead, to get their question answered.
REID CHERLIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, as you’ve noted on the campaign trail or at an event, reporters are, are more likely to informally compare notes, chat, maybe collude, in the best possible sense. And put the TV in there and game’s off.
REID CHERLIN: Right. I mean, I don’t want to overstate that and I do think in the, in the White House briefing you do have a lot of reporters following off of each other's questions and sort of hunting as a pack, which can often be the best way to get answers out of a spokesperson who doesn't want say much. But I do think it erodes the camaraderie a bit. I mean, I think the first thing is everybody wants it to be productive. I think everyone ends up feeling disappointed. It’s a bad system and you end up getting bad outcomes and you even end up getting bad behavior.
Imagine if you were having a fight or a, a tense conversation about disclosure of information with your spouse. There was some new information introduced in your relationship that you needed to discuss. And you said, I want to put a TV camera on both of us and then we’re going to put this in the newspaper. You can just imagine how you would start to talk differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is the worst analogy in the history of analogies, Reid [LAUGHS] because the nature of an intimate relationship is completely different from that of an accountable government to its citizenry.
REID CHERLIN: Right, but what – I think what you’re forgetting is the human element, which is that, unlike any other press job in Washington - and again, this was how it worked when I was there and the Trump team has been talking about potentially fiddling with this - unlike any other press job in Washington where you can avoid a reporter's phone call if you want, in the White House you can't because the reporters are allowed to roam from the briefing room into the West Wing press offices. They can go right up to your desk and they can sit down and wait for you to get off the phone and talk to them.
So, there's really no way [LAUGHS] to hide from each other. And on days when, let’s say, you have the intention of making the announcement that everyone’s anticipating but it’s not quite ready, and you’re just trying to buy yourself time to get all the facts right, but you’ve got 10 reporters charging up from the brief room standing over your desk saying, we this information now, where Reuters is saying this and we have to match it, it can be really tense.
It also can become a personal standoff kind of an issue, where you can be working with a reporter who you feel like is treating you unfairly. As a reporter, you can be working with a spokesman who you think is serially withholding. Often, the worst of those relationships then gets highlighted in the brief room on television. That’s very inside baseball but it’s a big reason why the briefing can feel frustrating and a little bit pointless, is because it can – it feels like it’s overtaken by squabbling.
And what I would point out to you is – I know you didn’t like my analogy –
- but there's something called a gaggle that used to happen a lot more in Washington and happens more often now when the president travels, and that is a briefing that is off-camera. The press secretary answers questions and it’s not for live broadcast. It works wonders in terms of being a lot more productive and a lot faster, so people are able ask questions earlier in the day, they're able to get a sense of what you’re going to answer and what you’re not, and if they know you’re not going to answer a question, they can just move on to the next topic. It allows the spokesman to go on background or to say, hey, off the record, I’ll have more on that for you later, things you can’t do on live television. And I really do think being live is a big part of what makes the briefing a problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you prefer fewer briefings, more gaggles, I mean, as a reporter, now?
REID CHERLIN: One day a week, one week a month, there's big news happening and you really want to hear from the White House and you want it on camera and you want it live. The rest of the days when everyone knows that it’s just getting an update on stuff that was in the paper that morning, you could have a gaggle take the place of that or a different kind of exchange that we haven't tried yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Semaphore, smoke signals, Morse code? [LAUGHS]
REID CHERLIN: [LAUGHS] Sometimes it’s just like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote back in 2013 in The New Republic that, quote, “The daily briefing has become a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff and a source of added friction between the two camps. It’s time to do the humane obvious thing and get rid of altogether.”
REID CHERLIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think now? You did write this back in 2013. Since then, we’ve had the first Tromp press conference, which had props of a cheering section of paid staff.
REID CHERLIN: I, I don’t want to be in the position of saying, well, now that the administration’s changed, my views are changing, but I do think that we’re in uncharted territory in basically every element of this presidency, [LAUGHS] as far as we can tell, so we don’t know yet how it’s going to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you no longer feel that we should consider doing away with the White House press briefing.
REID CHERLIN: I'm going to respond with a talking point in the classic sense, which is –
- my statement to you. I am for maximum accountability and transparency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ooh!
REID CHERLIN: If a daily briefing is the way –
See, you just groaned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, you sounded like Jay Carney.
REID CHERLIN: That’s exactly the effect that it has. Do you see what I’m saying?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I believe in general principles and I will not respond to the question at hand.
REID CHERLIN: [LAUGHS] So that was part demonstration and, and, and part answer and part stonewalling, which is that I'm aware that you're trying to pin me to my earlier statement that I said I think the briefing should be done away with. Obviously, I’m less comfortable with that in an administration that seems to be hostile to the press. And I know that I wrote this and I feel a little bit stunned, like, oh man! I came out pretty strong on this, envisioning a pretty conventional string of presidencies beyond it. But, you know, I – if it was true then, I think it’s at least partially true now, that a live daily briefing isn't always very constructive and that finding new ways to communicate would be good. But I think if the idea is, well, we’ll just move the press corps out of the White House, that's bad. If it’s, we’ll never talk to the press and we’ll just tweet, that's bad. But if it’s, we want to rethink the briefing and we want to have, you know, three conversations with the press corps during the day but not all of them are on camera, something like that, I think exploring those kinds of things could be good and productive.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reid, thank you very much.
REID CHERLIN: Thank you for your tough questions and thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Reid Cherlin was an assistant press secretary under President Obama and now is supervising writer for Vice News Tonight on HBO.