Top News Outlets Assemble New Teams In Washington — Barack Biting to Begin Soon?

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By: Joe Strupp

So what can we expect from the White House press corps in the era of Obama?

For one thing, many faces in the press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be changing, with most news outlets staffing the beat with fresh troops, and in some cases, more of them. There is also the reality of a new president coming in, via an historic path as the first black chief executive. Will reporters be reluctant to grill him as harshly as some of the previous 43 for fear of being labeled racist? Or, to fight charges of ?liberal bias,? will many scrutinize his policies even more?

And how accessible will Obama be? He did not mingle informally very often with the press during his campaign, and his aides kept a tight leash on information and overall access. Will that carry over to the White House years? He did hold a press conference three days after the election, during which, a la George W. Bush, he called on reporters by their first names (though without any nicknames).

Finally, will Obama get, and does he deserve, any ?honeymoon? given the string of serious problems the country faces, from the economic collapse to Iraq and Afghanistan? ?For everyone, the beginning of a new administration is a chance to start over,? says John Walcott, The McClatchy Co.?s Washington bureau chief. ?There was reluctance early in the Bush Administration to scrutinize him enough. That had as much to do with 9/11 as it did with the White House press corps.?

Walcott, whose newsroom was credited with being among the few that repeatedly questioned prewar Iraq intelligence, says reporters on that beat have to ignore any temptation to hold back or fear retribution.

He adds that none should expect a wide-open administration given Obama?s record on the campaign trail: ?I am not holding out hope that this administration will set a new standard for transparency. My impression is that the campaign had expressed a certain amount of control.?

Steven Thomma, who covered the Clinton Administration for the former Knight Ridder bureau and now will take over a McClatchy White House post, agrees. ?Every White House is more
controlling than the one before,? he says. ?There is probably a false assumption that he is accessible. I did not see a lot of interviews. Obama was not doing them at all.?

Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst, echoes that view. ?Obama has not been very accessible,? he says. ?But all presidents are controlling in their own way.?

So will Obama?s historic achievement help him deflect some press scrutiny? ?There is an added dimension to covering Obama because he is different than any other president,? says Dean Baquet, The New York Times? Washington bureau chief. ?But I don?t see any conflict in being an aggressive news bureau. We will be as aggressive as we always are.?

Adds Andy Alexander, bureau chief of Cox Newspapers? D.C. office, ?It is a difficult question for me to answer because the only way I know is to scrutinize.? Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politico and a veteran White House reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, fears that too much emphasis on Obama the man, and the history, could take away from digging and policy reporting: ?There is a danger that all of the emphasis is on Obama, the first black president and the cultural change.?

Lewis contends that some could ease up. ?It is my firm opinion that any group of journalists is willing to cut a public official a little more slack if they like him or her,? he says. ?Everyone has got a sense of good will.?

But some of those same journalists contend Obama may get the shortest honeymoon of any recent president, given the long list of problems he will face. ?Coverage of this White House will be so much more intense for the first couple of years than anything we have seen before,? claims Vandehei. ?Everything can be dissected moment by moment. There are going to be more people covering the administration. I don?t know how they will fit them all into the briefing room.?

Phil Bennett, the Washington Post?s managing editor, says too much attention could be focused on whether Obama is enjoying an easy go: ?I thought that honeymoon idea never really existed anyway. This is going to be a set of stories that engage almost all of the best and ambitious and most talented journalists in Washington. Given the problems we face, I don?t think the Obama Administration is going to catch a lot of breaks.?

Alexander agrees, noting, ?It is a little bit myth. It didn’t take long for the press to start criticizing the Clinton transition. Given all of the problems facing the country, Obama will begin to be pressed immediately.?

Already, The Washington Post, McClatchy, and The New York Times have announced new White House reporters, with the Post and The Washington Times increasing their staffing, while others are simply changing faces. But even with the addition of White House assignments to some news outlets, an overall cutback in Washington bureaus that began more than a year ago is picking up speed. Several veterans say cutbacks occurring at places as varied as Tribune newspapers and Media General will mean fewer people to keep watch on the new administration and a new, heavily Democratic Congress.

?Resources are scarcer today than they have been in a long time,? says McClatchy?s Walcott. ?There are simply fewer reporters in Washington.? Andy Alexander of Cox says he will not have a full-time White House scribe after Ken Herman returns to the chain?s Austin American-Stateman. At Hearst, Lewis says he has not had a full-timer in years among his three-person group. ?The reporting that is needed is the accountability reporting, digging into the agencies, behind the scenes,? says Vandehei.

Still, several editors say the excitement of a new administration is making the White House beat more attractive and prime for news. ?Covering the new administration is the plum assignment in Washington, and it is going to be a great story because of the interaction of this historic president and all of these issues,? says Bennett at the Post. ?The focus is going to be driven by events more than Obama?s newness to the scene.? His paper will expand its crew of full-time White House correspondents from two to four. That will also include the paper?s first Web-based White House reporter.

Bennett says Chris Cillizza, who writes for the popular blog ?The Fix,? will likely rename it ?The White House Fix.? Bennett adds, ?This is the first time we have had a Web person who is a core part of our White House coverage. Coming off the campaign, I think the Web has become an integral part of our overall [White House] coverage, and the leading edge of our breaking news coverage.?

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