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Press Corps ConfrontsShrouded White House - Broadcasting & Cable

Press Corps ConfrontsShrouded White House

Reporters bristle at scant access as administration does social media end-run
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If there is one nagging buzzword to sum up President Obama’s second term so far, a good case could be made for “transparency.” Just as the Obama administration is facing critiques for openness surrounding its use of drones, the White House press corps is lamenting a lack of transparency when it comes to dealings with the media.

When the press was barred from covering Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods over Presidents’ Day weekend, Fox News senior White House correspondent Ed Henry, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, issued a statement on behalf of members expressing “extreme frustration” about being denied access and to say, “There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency.”

Though the golf outing brought the issue to the forefront, TV reporters on the Beltway beat say relations between the administration and the press corps have been deteriorating since mid-2011, when the president’s re-election campaign began.

“When they went into full campaign mode, that’s when they basically stopped treating us with any respect at all and just ignored us,” said Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent and political director, NBC News. “I say that a little facetiously, but they were just done with us. They were all focused on the campaign, and everything was done through the media prism of how do they get to 270 electoral votes.”

While focus shifted from the Oval Office during the campaign, after the election the press corps returned to a White House that suddenly lacked the infrastructure to handle press inquiries—with seemingly little desire to fix that. “They keep promising they’re going to establish regular order. [White House press secretary Jay] Carney keeps saying this, but it just hasn’t happened,” said Hans Nichols, White House correspondent for Bloomberg Television.

President Left To His Own Devices

The White House has countered by pointing out that Obama has done nearly double the number of press conferences that George W. Bush did and has sat for hundreds of interviews, including more than 100 with major networks. Still, several reporters said relations with the press have not improved because the Obama administration is increasingly confident in its ability to circumvent the press corps. In the social media-connected world of 2013, the White House has its own Flickr feed and Obama has his own Twitter account. The president has hosted Google Hangouts and answered voter questions on Reddit.

And by putting out their own material, it’s equivalent to state-run media, argued CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, who has been covering the Washington beat since the Reagan administration.

“This is not about a picture of Tiger Woods. This is about access to the president. And access to the president has been cut and pushed and curtailed over every administration I’ve covered,” Plante said Feb. 24 on CNN’s Reliable Sources. “This administration has the tools to reach people on their own. They don’t need us as much. And to the extent that they’re able to do that, they’re undercutting the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press through many voices.”

It’s the multiple voices reporters see missing in recent White House news events. On Feb. 28, CNBC Washington reporter Eamon Javers tweeted the official White House photo of new Treasury Secretary Jack Lew being sworn in with the message, “What don’t you see here? The press. Weren’t allowed in for Treas Secretary Lew’s swearing in.”

When the White House does allow access to Obama, they are more likely to grant interviews to local TV stations, network anchors or consumer magazines (the golf trip was covered by Golf Digest). To members of the press corps, that’s seen as an intentional tack to avoid interviews (and tough questions) with reporters who cover the beat every day.

While press complaining about access is not a new issue, reporters say the current hostility toward the media is in contrast to how the White House ran under press secretary Robert Gibbs in Obama’s first term.

“There was always an attempt at least to explain how policy was being made,” Todd said.

“Access wasn’t great, but [for] reporters and White House officials, the assumption was that everyone was going to be around for a long time, so it was less antagonistic,” added Nichols.

Both men agreed it is too early to say whether things will improve throughout Obama’s second term. While they acknowledge some efforts at a thaw in relations, there is no reason to expect change is a priority for the administration. “I don’t believe it’s going to get that much better,” Todd conceded.

“They do seem a lot more confident/ cocky. That was nowhere clearer than the Tiger Woods incident,” Nichols said. “In the past, they have never totally frozen out a traveling press pool. If that is a taste of where we’re going, things will be fundamentally different in term two.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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