Shoptalk: White House Side-Steps Journalist’s Question

By: Hal Morris

At White House press briefings, is it “disrespectful” to ask President Barack Obama a hard-hitting question that reflects what is on the minds of many Americans?

When Major Garrett, CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, did that in July, it brought frowns from some journalists and a scolding from an irritated president.  Some news folks, especially those on competing TV outlets, attacked Garrett as “disrespectful.”

That was when the veteran broadcast/print newsman, in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, asked the president why nothing was said about releasing four Americans (including two journalists) being held in Iran—and no word on the hostages’ status.

The president admonished Garrett by saying, “That’s nonsense, you should know better.”

Others felt Garrett asked a proper, inquisitive question, distinguishing himself as a watchdog, thus setting him apart from some other Washington correspondents that media critics label lapdogs with their softball queries.

That quiz session underscored that covering the current White House yields no easy answers despite the administration’s claim that it is “the most open and participatory administration in history.”

Reflecting on the CBS newsman’s questioning of the president in the Iran case, Jack Marshall, writer of Ethics Alarms, declared, “American journalism is supposed to be, indeed ethically obligated to be, suspicious, probing, objective and adversarial, which described Garrett’s question exactly.”

As Garrett later explained, “All I was trying to do was elicit from the commander-in-chief where these four Americans in Iran fell in his prioritization of obtaining a nuclear deal and whether he fought for their release.”

A University of Missouri graduate with journalism and political science degrees, Garrett said his questioning “struck a nerve.  That was my intention. Was it provocative?  Yes.  Was it intended to be as such?  Absolutely.”

Just 11 days earlier, the White House Correspondents’ Association—in which Garrett serves as secretary in the current year—spurred by some frustrated members, announced a set of “principles and practices” in search of “meaningful and consistent access to the president.”

Among primary goals, WHCA cited:

    **The press must be able to see, hear, witness and question the president and his or her aides on a routine basis, in addition to the daily White House briefing.
    **The press must have the ability to question the president in person on a regular basis, including through a full news conference at least once a month and in response to significant news developments.

Susan Milligan in a detailed Columbia Journalism Review article put some light on the White House press corps, pointing out there is “a gulf between the press and the head of state it’s charged with covering. The answers are long, leaving time for just a few questions from a press corps with already-limited access to the president. Actual news is almost never made, since the White House has new tools allowing it to release and manage news on its own schedule and terms—its online news report is but one of these.”

In checking the White House online news site, I noted under the heading ENGAGE AND CONNECT, the opening line was contrary to what Washington journalists find in attempts to pry information from the president at press briefings:

President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history.

Along with information prepared by White House staffers, the site (whitehouse.gov/engage/latest-news) invites contacting the White House with questions or comments online.

Milligan, who covered the White House for the New York Daily News and later for The Boston Globe, also commented on media performances at the White House.

“At press conferences, the overwhelming tendency is to ask about the day’s headline or to look for the ‘gotcha’ question, instead of addressing long-term accountability issues,” she said.  “Reporters ask questions not to get information, but to get a reaction.  And even with that strategy, they rarely succeed.”

One reason, cited Milligan: “White House correspondents say the president is deft at running out the clock by ‘filibustering’ with his answers.”

Hal Morris spent two decades as a newspaper reporter and editor in Los Angeles.  He writes at GrumpyEditor.com.

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Published: November 20, 2015

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