Todd Purdum, a former White House reporter for the New York Times in the Clinton years -- a man so impressed by Clinton's first press secretary Dee Dee Myers that he married her -- discussed his latest Vanity Fair article on how Washington is broken on the NPR show Fresh Air on Tuesday. Purdum's most noteworthy complaint is how the Washington press corps is mean-spirited, even "profoundly silly" in its "perverse rituals" of questioning President Barack Obama. (See Lachlan's blog, too). Dave Davies, the substitute host for Terry Gross, helpfully summed up the thesis:
DAVIES: In the afternoon, you say there's this what you call one of the most perverse rituals of the modern presidency. That's the press briefing. Why is it perverse?
PURDUM: Well, if what the congressional leaders do is Kabuki theater, what the press do is really it's really comic theater. It's opera bouffe (comic opera), I guess. But, you know, I used to cover the White House 15 years ago for the New York Times, and I went to the briefing every day, and I confess that I thought it was kind of silly then.
But when I go to it now, it just seems so impossible to have a real discussion about anything because there's just so much posturing going on, on the part of both it must be said on the part of both the Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and the press. But it's a terrible vehicle for the real exchange of information. And the television correspondents all each ask two to three questions each. The questions don't move beyond the first or second row of the briefing room, which is why everyone fights so hard to get in those first two rows, why there was such a fight to get the vacant seat left by the retirement of Helen Thomas, which ultimately went to Fox News.
And it's a kind of I think really the only thing I can say it's just a kind of profoundly silly exercise, but there seems no way to stop it. It's so ingrained, and it's so traditional that there'd be hell to pay for any administration who tried to stop it.
It's not a "profoundly silly" exercise if you're a reporter trying to wring news out of the White House press operation. Purdum says he thought it was silly when he was doing it, but did he really express that at the time? Or is he just looking back down a snobby nose? Certainly, many conservatives thought some reporters (ahem, David Gregory, or Terry Moran) in the Bush years were throwing harsh questions at press aides to draw attention to themselves, but that wasn't an issue to Vanity Fair then. Purdum went on to lament that the reporter/poseurs went for dirty hits on President Obama's family.
DAVIES: Why is this silly? I mean, this the president has important policy initiatives that he needs explained. You have a press secretary who understands them. You have a press that wants answers. I mean, surely it's their chance to get official, on-the-record comment on some really important stuff. Why has it gotten so silly?
PURDUM: Well, I think that you've put it very well. That certainly is a chance to do that, if that's what people chose to use it for. I think too often, the questions are about minor points of controversy that loom large for four, five or six hours and are going to be overtaken by the next day's events.
One of the examples that I cite and that struck me was when the president unveiled his first budget after taking office in 2009, this is a three-point-whatever-trillion-dollar budget, a pretty important event, the first question from the biggest news organization, the Associated Press, was about a line in the president's speech in which he'd said there are times when people should repair their foundations and times when they can remodel their house. And this correspondent wanted to know if that was an appropriate metaphor, considering that the Obamas were even then redecorating the family quarters of the White House to accommodate their girls. It turns out, of course, that they paid for this entirely out of their own pocket. They didn't use the money set aside by Congress for that purpose.
Contrary to the way the transcript reads, NPR did not start playing a sadly sympathetic violin song over the quarrelsome press bullying the White House over their daughters getting refurbished quarters.
On the other hand, President Obama makes fun of the media's impatience for results all the time, and yet there is no "killing the messenger" outrage among the media elite. Even in jokes, Obama arrogantly compares himself to Lincoln and liberals don't find him egotistical:
DAVIES: There's this wonderful metaphor you have where, we can't let the carrots grow. We have to pull them out of the soil every so often just to see how they're doing. (Soundbite of laughter)
PURDUM: Exactly. And I think, you know, that does sum up sort of the inherent impatience that seems to be working here. Obama makes fun of this all the time, as he did at the White House Correspondent's Association dinner this spring, when he had a PowerPoint presentation with some slides of what Politico might have made of say President Lincoln in the Civil War. There was a headline something like: "Saves the Union, But Can He Save the House Majority?" And, you know, it's funny but it's also kind of sad because there is a way in which I think so many of our past presidents, including many of the greatest ones, could not have done what they did at least not as easily if they were operating in this media environment.
DAVIES: Yeah. You say Obama faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, trivialized and combative media environment any president has ever experienced. How are they handling it? How do you think Robert Gibbs and company are managing this?
PURDUM: Well, at one level the Obama administration is handling it with complete hostility and even, you know, sort of bordering on contempt for the press that they I don't think they very good relations with the press. They don't help the press very much by and large. The press complains about lack of access, lack of regular news conferences, lack of access for professional news photographers and the White House often puts out its own very good photographs by the official White House photographer Pete Souza, which is one of the reasons news organizations use them because they are good photographs. But I think they feel quite frustrated.
On the other hand, it's easy to see why the president would want to pick his shots and talk selectively to the press because, you know, as competent and as capable as he is, you could argue that the one time he really got in trouble through his own words, was in that news conference last summer where he talked about Skip Gates and that led to this controversy over, you know, the whole handling of that incident in Cambridge and it led to a kind of racially-charged discussion about the president and was he favoring African-Americans over law enforcement and so on and so forth. And that was the last formal news conference he held for a very, very long time. He's had only one other since, I believe.
DAVIES: Right. And so there are good reasons for the president to want to manage its media relations. The more they are managed, the more resentful the media become and more determined to get a gotcha story.
PURDUM: Exactly. And there's a sense of, you know, a really corrosive lack of trust I think.
"A really corrosive lack of trust"? Or do liberals suddenly feel that hardballs tossed at Robert Gibbs are inherently "corrosive"? Questioning that Barack Obama may not exactly be Lincoln is "really corrosive"? Todd Purdum and his enablers at NPR don't even spare anyone as an exception to this profound silliness, not even NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Instead, he dared suggest it would be better for America and its government if "corrosive" press briefings were just called off.