Former AP Bureau Chief Says Blow Off White House Briefings, They're 'A Waste of Time'
Former AP Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier is advising the White House press corps to toughen up. “The typical White House reporter considers President Obama's team the most secretive in memory, stingier with information than the tight-lipped Bush White House and, according to a Politico survey, prone to lie.”
So Fournier advised in National Journal that it’s time to be “both fair and tough,” to shift the leverage of the conversation from the government to the people, and even consider blowing off the White House briefing as “a waste of time.”
Don't go to White House briefings. They're a waste of time. The press secretary rarely makes news and, when he does, the information is a stale commodity; everybody gets it. While your competitors rot away in the briefing room, slip outside the gates and grab a meal or cup of coffee with a potential source, ideally one who doesn't work in the White House. Blowing off briefings is a competitive advantage.
Cover the White House from the "outside in." That's the phrase used by Caren Bohan of Reuters to describe her mastery of agencies and legislative offices disconnected from the White House vault. When Politico asked for tips on how to cover the White House, Jonathan Karl of ABC News said, "By going outside the White House – to Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department or the political world."
I used to joke that on any important story, there might be five White House aides who had the information I needed, and if worked my butt off, I might get two of them on the telephone. If I got really lucky, one of those two aides would tell me half the truth. The lesson in that hyperbole is that the White House is a small place with a tight hold on information. The only way to get your arms around the beat is to get your hands dirty in other parts of Washington.
From my two years in the White House press corps under George W. Bush, I can vouch for the idea that many reporters disdain “official news” like Carney briefings, and not just because they’re spin. Reporters want to look like they have something exclusive, preferring what (often anonymous) insider sources might tell them.
Fournier is advising journalists looking for a scoop that while someone's wasting 45 minutes listening to Carney blather, they could be talking to someone more forthcoming. Even back in 2001 and 2002, newspaper and magazine reporters often skipped the briefing, which seemed more for reporters broadcasting or filing minute by minute, and reporters sitting behind the big cheeses (like me) that worked for publications that weren’t famous enough to get your calls returned quickly.
On cable news, Fournier is also pushing hard on the notion that Team Obama has put politics ahead of the truth, starting with Benghazi. On Wednesday's New Day on CNN, Fournier told his old AP colleague John King:
FOURNIER: Look, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I'm a stickler for the truth and a stickler for fighting back against spin. And this administration on this issue and many others has put politics first. And that's if there's a smoking gun here, it's the e-mail that shows [Ben] Rhodes working for the president said that our goal here, our number one goal here, is showing on the Sunday talk shows through Susan Rice that the president is strong in foreign policy. That was the goal.
The goal wasn't to find out the truth and find out what happened and make sure this doesn't happen again. They put politics first. It began to undermine their credibility, starting with Benghazi and then the IRS attacks -- the IRS incident. And then, you know, with ACA, the health care, the idea that you can keep your doctor if you want to. This is undermining of his credibility. That's what's brought down his numbers.
Fournier wrapped up his National Journal piece by advising reporters that being both fair and tough doesn’t ruin your access. It makes you a more valuable voice in the public conversation:
A story: I left journalism for about a year to help launch a (failed) startup. Among my partners were several Democratic and Republican consultants, all former White House advisers who met with me one day to plot how we could get positive coverage about our new company. Somebody suggested that we pitch the story to a reporter I won't identify, a name-brand journalist who was known to write favorably, habitually, about his sources. "Not him," one of the consultants said. "Nobody will take his story seriously. Everybody know he's in the tank." Another reporter was nominated, a veteran political reporter who everybody in the room considered to be tough, skeptical and fair. "She's a pain. She probably won't buy what we're selling," a former presidential adviser said, "but if she does, we're golden."
Be that reporter, the one whose respect the White House covets without taking for granted.
Team Obama doesn't want any reporters to be fair and tough. They want publicists who repeat their talking points. Stenography has been the routine approach for most of the national media.