Amanda Ripley

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The Weirdness that is the White House Press Corps

24th May 2010 posted in General

I’ve become almost numb to the stories about the end of serious print journalism—the lay-offs, the bureau closings, the disappearance of fact checkers, libraries and integrity. So it was strangely refreshing to read today about one budget cut that may make the world a better place and certainly makes common sense.

News outlets are cutting back on budgets for covering the President! Now, this is portrayed as terrible news by the New York Times, more evidence that the end of the world is near, etc. But I am not so sure.

I have dipped in and out of the Washington news gaggles for 14 years, and I can tell you that having a pack of 30 reporters following the President around in a chartered plane is not good journalism. I’ve never understood it. This is arguably the most expensive kind of reporting after war reporting, and yet it yields very little truly useful information.

And yet that is how it has been done for decades. All sorts of valuable reporting trips get cut before anyone dares mess with the tens of thousands of dollars that get spent every quarter on following (and photographing) the President. And why is this? Why do we need several dozen people running around after the President, writing down largely the same things?

It’s not because the reader needs this level of redundancy, I can tell you that. I have seen these packs, and it is not pretty. Basically, the reporters engage in a desperate and somewhat embarrassing battle to get one tiny shred of new information or “scene,” as it is called, out of a highly choreographed event that is being recorded, analyzed and Tweeted to death by their competitors. I have seen smart, otherwise sane daily beat reporters chase each other across parking lots to ask one more question of Barack Obama in the futile quest to get him to say something newsworthy that he has not already said a thousand times—to get him to make a mistake, in other words. There is rarely any time to talk to the real people who may attend these events.

But big news organizations consider this a prestige beat, one that they must do even after they’ve cut everything else. Witness the bizarre logic in this excerpt from the Times story today:

The skimping on charters started in the tail end of the George W. Bush administration and has deepened during Mr. Obama’s 16 months of office, particularly in the last three months, news executives say. In these cases — be they in Buffalo this month or in Prague, where Mr. Obama traveled last month without a press charter for an important nuclear arms deal — the only reporters who are in the so-called presidential bubble are the dozen in a travel pool that fly on Air Force One and take notes and pictures for the rest of the press corps.

What is wrong with having a dozenreporters shadowing the President? Why isn’t that enough?!

It reminds me of a quote in James Fallows’ thoughtful story on Google in the new Atlantic. He is interviewing Krishna Bharat, a Google executive who is perplexed by the redundancy in all news coverage, not just White House coverage:

“It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” [Bharat] asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

I suspect that the tradition of saturation White House coverage has more to do with reporters’ vanity and editors’ lack of imagination than with real news. The real news is happening wherever the President is not. Want to cover the oil spill? Go out on the boats of pissed-off fishermen cleaning up BP oil. Want to investigate the impact of the stimulus act? Go hang out with the construction workers drinking Red Bull on the side of the freeway. (Want to cover the President? Fine. Go on a trip every other month. The rest of the time, watch him live on your computer, read the pool reports, run the pool photos—and then go talk to your sources about what is really going on.)

Unfortunately, the money saved by cutting White House coverage will not now shift to enterprise reporting. It’s too late for that. It will go towards the bottom line at places where the bottom line is deep underwater. But that’s a mistake. Because there are important stories to be told, and they have almost never been located in a ballroom at a Holiday Inn surrounded by satellite trucks.