When NBC's chief White House correspondent David Gregory sparred last week with Press Secretary Scott McClellan over the administration's handling of a certain hunting accident, it was only the latest example of the tenacity that has earned Gregory the label Firebrand in the Front Row. Although the cameras weren't rolling at the time—as McClellan noted in suggesting that Gregory was grandstanding—the often dramatic press briefings have played out increasingly on cable news, The Daily Show and the Web as must-see TV, with Gregory in a starring role. The veteran broadcaster spoke with B&C's Anne Becker about political theater in the James S. Brady Briefing Room.
What effect do you think these televised press-room confrontations have on public perception of the news media?
Sometimes press briefings are confrontational; that's not new. People's level of attention to them may be somewhat new. But there's a built-in tension between the White House and the press corps because we're more skeptical about what they're saying. People tend to view what the press does through their ideological prisms and see us as actors with some kind of agenda. Frankly, the White House seeks to stoke that view; you hear that on talk radio, and some people on Fox News have been critical of our questioning and make the argument that we have a point of view, which is really not the case. The White House engages the public directly through us; people have questions, and the public has a right to know certain things. Whether or not people have faith in me—or us, collectively—is something I try to be very sensitive to, but I can't focus on our image all the time.
Jon Stewart regularly plays clips of Scott McClellan facing the press. Do you think that's brought more attention to the briefings?
Not so much. That may be a smaller part of it. During the Clinton administration, the press briefings were televised only for a limited period of time, unlike now, with 24-hour cable news and C-SPAN. Shows like The Daily Show are part of it, but I think the Internet and blogosphere are a big part of it as well. People are poring over the transcripts immediately and posting them on blogs and partisan Web sites, so the commentary builds from there.
Last week, McClellan insinuated that you were playing to the cameras. How aware are you of the TV cameras in the briefing room?
I should point out that it was wrong of me to have raised my voice and said to him what I said, which was, “Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question.” You should win these arguments on the merits. The reason I got upset is that there were no cameras there, which is why I thought it was a cheap shot. I work on television; I'm always aware that the cameras are there. But it makes my point that they weren't there then and that I was still pressing pretty hard. That's my job, and that's what I'm expected to do, so I press just as hard whether they're on or off.
Your father, Don Gregory, was a Broadway producer. Does that influence the way you see broadcast journalism?
I really don't see myself as a performer in any respect. Some people may accuse me of that. But that's not how I view myself, and I don't try to come off that way.