Get Outta Town!
If you're based in Washington but you're not with the national media, the White House
By Brigid Schulte
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post reporter.
He doesn't want to talk to you.Hours before a White House education awards ceremony last year, Washington correspondent Jim Fry of Dallas' WFAA-TV and several other regional reporters positioned their cameras for the best center shot of the podium. When network reporters and camera crews arrived just minutes before the summit, they complained that only side views were left. So White House press aides moved the podium.
When a prisoner of war from East Chicago was allegedly spotted in a photo taken in Vietnam, Julia Rockler, deputy bureau chief for the Washington Bureau, a video wire service, tried in vain to get an interview with President Bush on Vietnam POW investigations. Then a Chicago station called to say that Bush had agreed to do a satellite hook-up interview with anchors there, so Rockler fed her questions to the station. "That was the last story we worked on [in which] we had any access," she says.
Joel Southern, the Washington reporter for the Alaska Public Radio Network, was forced to drop a story he'd planned on Alaskan wetlands after his requests for an interview with an administration official went unanswered for weeks. "The clear underlying message was: 'We're never going to call you back,' " he says.
For the more than 800 television, radio and print journalists who cover Washington for small-town and regional news outlets, stories such as these are not unusual. Most regional reporters focus on congressional delegations or regulations winding their way through federal agencies. Only occasionally, when a bill comes to the president for a final decision, or when a local Boy Scout troop assembles in the Rose Garden, do regionals need access to the White House.
Even then, reporters tell stories of interviewing sources through the front gate, being transferred to disconnected White House extensions, getting a response weeks after a story already has been published or being told that questions such as "Who travels with the president in his entourage?" can't be answered for national security reasons.
"We fall into this netherworld between White House correspondents and the out-of-town journalists that the Media Affairs Office is really set up to help," says Jonathan Salant, who covers Washington for the Herald-Journal and the Post-Standard in Syracuse. "The White House is totally ill-prepared to deal with the growth of Washington-based local reporters who don't come to the White House very often but need local things."
At a time when President Bush is doing satellite hook-up interviews with local television anchors throughout the country, an entire cadre of Washington reporters is not covering regional stories at the White House because the reporters are denied access.
"The White House insists on perpetuating a caste system in its dealings with the press. They treat news organizations that have lots of money or lots of prestige a hell of a lot better than they do the rest of us," says Paul Furiga, news editor at Thomson Newspapers' Washington bureau, a 15-person operation for 123 small-circulation papers throughout the United States. "It's one of the few places in town where you're punished if you don't have somebody there every day as window dressing."
Punishment or not, the fact that regionals generally do not schmooze with deputy press secretaries or hang out in the press briefing room contributes to the problem. Couple that with the fact that in Washington, it's whom you write for and how many people in Washington read you that dictate whether your calls are returned. "In the best of circumstances, White House officials are not great at returning phone calls," says John Harwood, a former regional reporter for the St. Petersburg Times who now covers the White House for the Wall Street Journal. "So if you have the double disadvantage of not being a regular..and working for a smaller paper, I'm sure that makes it doubly difficult."
As a result, some regional reporters say they no longer bother contacting the White House or expect little when they do. "I'm sure there are some stories we could do out of the White House that are of particular interest to our readers in the Midwest – farm credit policy, how the president characterizes his rural development strategy or his Northern states strategy – but it would take a massive reporting effort to get something decent," says David Westphal, a former Washington correspondent and now managing editor of the Des Moines Register. "[White House] access is not significant to us because of our decision about how we cover Washington. Perhaps that was part of the reason. If you don't have access, why bother to cover it?"
White House media officials concede they often overlook Washington-based regional reporters. But the problem, they say, has more to do with structure and logistics than with censorship. While the press office is set up to handle inquiries and make travel arrangements for the national media, the media relations office is responsible for myriad functions, most of which involve regional press beyond the Beltway and little that involves answering questions. "We can't do everything," says Maria Eitel Sheehan, deputy director of the Office of Media Affairs. "We try to do as much as we can."
Some political and media experts maintain that regionals don't need access to the White House, since most of their outlets pick up reports from the networks, wire services and larger newspapers. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says that because of limited resources and a seemingly infinite number of reporters, the White House Press Office must err on the side of "wholesaling" the news – returning a call from CNN, which reaches 15 million viewers a day, rather than one from a Wichita affiliate.
"The government has other jobs than answering reporters' questions," he says. "I guess if you represent a very small paper, you have to wait your turn from the White House point of view. It's frustrating; life's not very fair in that regard. But most of the questions [regional] reporters ask are boutique questions on a very specific point... They're the type of questions that are time-consuming, even if you have the right answer."
The main problem with access for regionals is that the press office is designed to answer queries from nearly 300 members of the national press – the "heavy hitters and designated stars" in the words of one regional reporter – who cover the president daily. The 10 people in the Office of Media Affairs serve everyone else, from the Santa Fe New Mexican to Telecommunications Week to "The Joan Rivers Show." "We're the ones who deal with Four Wheeler Magazine," says Deputy Director Sheehan, who gets about 60 calls from around the country each day. "When Marlin [Fitzwater] has his daily briefing, the questions are generally on what the hot policy topic is. Every day, we get the whole gamut... In one minute, we talk about the president's economic policy to what the president had for breakfast to what he and Mrs. Bush plan to do on their anniversary... A lot of times the regional media are victimized by being so numerous."
While many reporters think the Office of Media Affairs is the regional version of the larger press office, it actually has a separate function. Its mission, which was defined during the Nixon administration, is to sell the president and his agenda to the heartland by bypassing the critical national press and reaching out to more friendly reporters at small-town newspapers. Currently, the office is responsible for placing pro-administration op-ed columns in newspapers, arranging local radio, television and satellite interviews with cabinet officials and the president, and flying in regional press for lunch or cocktails with the president. Office interns fax press releases and mail photos of President Bush with local school children to hometown papers and escort regional reporters to White House events.
"We invited press in, but we spent more time setting up meetings in regional areas," explains Herb Klein, editor in chief of Copley Newspapers, who, as Richard Nixon's communications director, first developed the outreach strategy. "You have some coverage if you have people come into the White House and are flattered, but you have more if you go out. It helped quite a lot in shaping [Nixon's] image."
Klein's concept has benefited both the White House and the newspapers, says Kristin Clark Taylor, Bush's first director of media relations, now at BellSouth. Reporters get their questions answered and the president gets his message out and appears accessible to voters at the same time. "In terms of votes, I would much rather be smiled upon by the Rocky Mountain News than the New York Times," says George Reedy, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson and now professor emeritus at Marquette University. "The Times has a lot of prestige, but I wonder how many votes are swayed by it."
The outreach strategy is especially employed in election years but discarded in the intervening three, says Don Campbell, director of the Freedom Forum's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellowships, a program for regional reporters. "In election years, the White House will suddenly get interested in regional media and try to dazzle them – run them by a few cabinet secretaries, have the president come in and call them by their first names. It's part of the political process in the White House," he says. "Again, the regional reporter in town gets lost in the shuffle. His editor gets invited in from Pittsburgh or Altoona and he's still here and can't get his phone calls returned."
The Office of Media Affairs also has limited access to White House news, according to some insiders. Situated in the Old Executive Office Building, far from the West Wing press briefing room, the office's staff members have to run across the lawn to get press releases and must clear statements with their more prestigious counterpart. And it's understood that the Office of Media Affairs will never release more information than the press office. "It's important to remember we took our cues directly from the White House Press Office," Taylor says. "We weren't going to give to a regional and not to a national."
Although Herb Klein hired several top public relations and press people to run the office during the Nixon years, insiders say the office has been staffed more often with interns and inexperienced patronage hires during the last several administrations.
Not all regional reporters have troubles with the White House. Some who have been around for years, such as John Day of Maine's Bangor Daily News, have White House press passes – a rare commodity for regional reporters – and are able to breeze into the briefing room at will. Others affiliated with larger bureaus can either feed questions to their regular White House correspondent or use the bureau name to get calls returned. "I identify myself as with Cox Newspapers because most of the stuff I write goes out on the Cox wire," says reporter Larry Lipman. "If I told them I was with the Palm Beach Post, I don't know what their reaction would be."
To the Office of Media Affairs' credit, Sheehan, Taylor, Elizabeth Board from the Reagan administration and others have met with the D.C.-based Regional Reporters Association to discuss problems reporters have had with access.
Taylor, for example, helped arrange a press conference with Bush. Northwest reporters asked about the spotted owl controversy, Denver reporters inquired about Neil Bush's involvement in Silverado Savings & Loan, and Nebraska reporters tried to ascertain the president's views on a proposed scenic river designation in their state. Frank Murray, writing in the Washington Times, says the disjointed event "was about as productive as a news blackout."
Westphal of the Des Moines Register and other regional journalists agree that such a sweeping format for such provincial questions is not very helpful. And Taylor and Board say briefing the president on such a wide array of issues is a nightmare. "In some cases, he had to be briefed more intensively because there were so many possibilities," Taylor says. "There are so many hot regional issues, we didn't want him to appear insensitive or out of the loop."
Responding to several regional television reporters' complaints that they can never get into the Oval Office when, for example, a hometown boy presents a prize model airplane to the president, Sheehan has arranged for a pool camera crew to film the event for local stations.
For the rest of the regional press, some reporters say the best solution may be to find a middle ground. Regional news outlets generally don't need the same access as the national news organizations, whose mission is to cover the president and national policy. But they certainly would like to have their calls returned.
"I know this would make the deficit larger, but it seems to me that they could hire someone else to answer the phone," Westphal says. "I do think it would serve them well to pay a bit more attention to the little guys... And it certainly wouldn't hurt Bush politically to put one more phone line in the White House." l