Anatomy Of A Press Secretary p.22

By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ WHEN MIKE MCCURRY was named White House press secretary, he told reporters, "I want to have some fun around here."
More than a year later, he says he is doing just that.
"This job has been the most fun I've ever had in my career, because I enjoy it. Every day is interesting. Every day is something new," McCurry told E&P during an interview in his White House office.
But, in language that would do any spokesperson proud, McCurry added that while this was the most fun, his previous post as State Department spokesman was more enjoyable.
More fun but less enjoyable?
"I've been a political press secretary for most of the last 20 years . . . so there wasn't a lot new that I could learn for a lot of what I do here at the White House every day," he explained.
"At the State Department, every single day I felt like I was in a graduate seminar on international relations, and it was intellectually stimulating," McCurry said.
"I, frankly, learned more from that press corps than I learned from the troops here ? and I enjoy the reporters here a lot," he added.
One big difference between the White House and State Department press operations, McCurry said, is that the White House correspondents are "much more sensitive to the news cycle than the State Department."
Pointing out the irony in that ? "because [when] you think of the State Department, they are global, so they are affected by breaking news overseas" ? McCurry explained that "the State Department has a very regimented way of dealing with the daily briefing process."
"I found here at the White House, because we do a 9:15 briefing in the morning, as well as the televised briefing at one o'clock, that there's much more of a premium on getting to the breaking news more quickly ? and getting a reaction to breaking news," McCurry said.
"So, it's a little faster pace, in the sense that you have to contend with the news cycle more directly.
"It doesn't change the standards for accuracy or the information that you're providing; it's a little faster pace," he added.
McCurry described his relationship with the White House press corps as "adversarial" but "amicable," which he said is good.
From day one, there were complaints from journalists ? particularly regional reporters and those who are not White House regulars ? about the lack of responsiveness from the Clinton press office.
"There's a tendency, sometimes in the White House, to think of the press as only those who occupy the seats in the briefing room and who are the regulars in the White House press corps," McCurry conceded.
"Obviously, with media proliferating in many different ways, old and new, regional versus national, it's very important for us to have an operation that can service everybody.
"Now, you can't always service everybody equally, because the networks and the major newspapers and the wire services still dominate the pressroom and dominate the White House press office ? and torture us relentlessly, which they are entitled to do, or they think they are entitled to do," he continued.
"But what we are now trying to do is reach out and let the rest of the world know that we do have point of contact," McCurry said.
"We have an office of media affairs that's small, but for many regional papers, including major dailies around the country, that is the office of the White House press secretary, the White House press office," he said, adding that, "We are doing a lot of work to try to make that a more aggressive outreach operation."
McCurry said he hoped the recent promotion of a staffer from media affairs to deputy press secretary "will say to the White House press office, and to the outside world, that we take very seriously our responsibility of responding to sort of nontraditional media, so-called new media, specialized publications and publications and broadcast organizations that reach new types of audiences, or different segments of audiences."
"Now, we'll never be perfect and I don't think we'll ever be as good as we need to be on that," he conceded, "but I think we are kind of trying to step up the response and the level of attention to those types of publications."

Customer service
To make the point to his staff that "customer service" is a high priority, McCurry early on began a system whereby at the end of the week, staffers had to come up with one thing they had done to go out of their way to help a reporter with his work. Those who came up empty had to pitch in $1 to the kitty for a pizza and beer party.
"Everyone thought I was joking at first, and we went through about two weeks where we had a pizza and beer party. It was a symbolic thing, but they finally got that I really meant it, and I was putting a very high premium on what I'd call customer service," McCurry said.
"Not to fault the prior years, but you can always do a better job of serving your customer," he continued, describing those customers as American taxpayers who rely on the press to report what is happening.
"We can't always provide [the press with] what they need, which is news, but any time we can make it easier for them just to get the substantive things, or even the little things . . . then it makes a lot of sense to do that," he said.
McCurry believes that some of the early problems between the White House press corps and the White House press office were created when the administration simply brought its campaign operation into the government.
"Those are two different, distinct creatures of public relations in the political world," he explained.
"A campaign press operation has to be a lot more hard charging and a lot more aggressive, and the adversarial relationship can get rubbed raw very quickly," McCurry observed, adding that his predecessors "inherited some of the aftermath of that." McCurry credited his predecessor, Dee Dee Myers, with fighting for and eventually getting "rights of access, rights of privilege, rights of rank and responsibilities that, frankly, I inherited."
With that access, McCurry said he has "the ability to barge in on Clinton and get a fast answer before a briefing, or making sure that people kind of go out of their way to let me know of things that are developing that I might need to know."
"I've been a victim of too much information, instead of too little," he said, calling that "a good position to be in."
In fact, the information age may be responsible for "the single greatest challenge in the job of being a press secretary at the White House right now," McCurry said.
"The flow of information accelerates, but the capacity to understand the information, deal with it, make rational, good, sound decisions goes at about the same pace as the feeble, human brain allows," he said.
"I think there's too much of a tendency, sometimes, to rush too quickly for judgment, to respond, to react, to say 'yes' or 'no' to a question until you've had time to think about it.
"So, as much as I want to speed up the flow of information and make things more accessible," he said, "I hope the press understands that it's got to simultaneously give decision makers time to think. That's a little hard to do sometimes."
McCurry cited the diplomatic relations as an example, and the Bosnia peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, specifically.
"I know there's probably a great deal of concern in the press corps about the fact that the peace talks on Bosnia in Dayton . . . weren't necessarily off the record, but the press was really kept at a distance, and very little information was provided on the talks while they were underway.
"They probably never could have gotten such a complicated agreement done if people were out having to defend their positions publicly," McCurry said, adding that "the important thing is to then have those who make the decisions, negotiate the agreements, fully accessible to explain them afterwards, which of course happened in the case with the Dayton agreement."
In 1992, President Clinton pledged "to have a government that would be more open and more accessible," McCurry noted.
"Now, in a practical sense, it's never going to be, I think, for most journalists, never be as open and accessible as people would like.
"But I can speak from real, direct, personal experience that a high priority has been placed on it," he said, explaining that one of his responsibilities in the State Department was to cut down the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests on appeal.
"In some cases, we didn't render the decision that someone would like. We didn't release material. We had to redact material, because of national security considerations, but at least we got people answers much more quickly," McCurry said.
"I think that's an example of what the administration has tried . . . to do across the board, to really open things up."
McCurry also commented on the "good, vibrant debate now within the professional journalistic community about the standards for coverage of politics, generally, and government in particular."
The president's view on that, McCurry said, is "let a thousand flowers bloom on that subject, because it's an important debate."
"Now, we can't tell folks on the other side of the fence how to do their jobs ? even though journalists will very often tell us how to do our jobs ? but the fact that that debate is going on, and that people who are within journalism schools or within the profession are saying ? 'Look, what ethical responsibility is there for such a thing as civic journalism? Is that real? Is the total impact of our coverage having an impact on our ability to self-govern?' ? that is a very healthy debate.
"It's hard to participate in that debate when you're sitting in a seat like this, because you're in the middle of things," he added. "But I think it's very encouraging that journalists are exploring those subjects and thinking about them, because the one thing I know for certain in Washington, you need a lot less cynicism.
"Skepticism certainly should be, and properly will be, part of the relationship between government and the press, but cynicism is dangerous," McCurry remarked.
McCurry believes that "the relationship between the press and government must be adversarial" and that "there is, properly, skepticism that's in the relationship."
"I don't think any reporter should take at face value what the government tells them, because the search for truth requires that you go beyond taking verbatim what you are told," he remarked. "But you need to test it out and make judgments and not automatically go the other direction and assume that you're being lied to all the time."
Ironically, it is not the grizzled old White House press veterans who are the most cynical, but the younger reporters.
"I think they expect to be lied to. They're disenchanted," McCurry observed. "They have never grown up in an environment in which anyone assumes that politicians are nobly motivated, so they always assume that people in politics have the basest of motivations.
"Even the younger White House press reporters, who are in their late 20s, mid-to-late 20s, a lot of them came of age during the middle of Watergate
and they don't really know anything but politicians who lie and dissemble and cheat and mislead. And they don't have any sense that there's any virtue in democracy.
"I think that's a real problem," McCurry said. "I think we need to kind of remind people that there are some good people in the business here."
Nevertheless, McCurry said he believes most reporters "will keep an open mind" and that they "are interested in trying to find the truth."
"They may bring a more jaundiced perspective to the search for truth, but at least in the end if you can convince them and prove to them that you're telling the truth, they will accept it.
"That's hard work sometimes, but it's very necessary," he commented, adding, "All that said, the adversarial relationship has to be amicable, for the people to at least try to get along with each other in doing their jobs, or it could get very poisonous."
The press secretary suggested that the best way to battle the culture of cynicism is for reporters to get out and talk to people who are not part of the Washington culture.
"It's astounding to sit in the home of a typical family ? we've all had that experience, when we're away visiting family on holidays or something ? you recognize how little of what we all think is so important day in and day out makes it through to the average citizen," he said.
"And then, secondly, how much makes it through to the average citizen that they just don't consider particularly important."
Like the customer service he spoke of earlier, McCurry said the press has "an obligation to think about the customer, about the reader, about the listener, about the viewer, who is really trying to sort out all this and understand whether it makes sense or not."
"And, I think, if people stay focused on what the job is, which is to serve the American people one way or another, everything comes out all right, because the American people have got good common sense. They actually do pay attention to things, if it matters to them, and they have a pretty good nose for news.
"When something is interesting and important, they will pay attention," McCurry said.
?("I don't think any reporter should take at face value what the government tells them, because the search for truth requires that you go beyond taking verbatim what you are told.") [Caption ]
?(? Mike McCurry, White House press spokesman) [Photo & Caption]


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