Monday, October 5, 2009

These are a few of my favorite press secretaries

Curl up with a hot cup of cocoa and prepare to drift off:
the White House press briefing, June 2, 2009.

Arguably the toughest job in public relations is the one in which Robert Gibbs finds himself today: White House press secretary.

The press secretary acts as the spokesperson for the president and facing the media in a daily press briefing, to discuss things like:
  • What did the president do today?
  • With whom did he meet?
  • Why are this government's policies so bone-headed, and won't you please explain and defend them to us, jack-ass?
The press secretary defends the president to the press, and the press to the president. Is it any wonder that the press secretary tradition is to pass along your collected wisdom to your successor in a flak jacket?

Journalists, of course, do the same thing, only they use a hack jacket. Just joshing, my journalist friends. Hardy, hardy, har!

George W. Bush's former press secretary Scott McClellan: never has there been a man who's looked happier to leave his job, unless you count Bush himself.

Of Roosevelt, journalists, and fecal matter

It's only been about 100 years or so that journalists have been allowed into the White House on a regular basis. As former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon once joked when asked by the Winnipeg Free Press about the fecal matter found on his doorknob, "That's what happens when you let journalists into the building."

And that was the general thinking in the U.S., until Theodore Roosevelt came into office in 1901, and made renovations to the White House, which included a briefing room.

The previous president, William McKinley, had a small room where journalists could hang out in the White House, but they never spoke directly to the president and had to conduct interviews outside, which was still a big improvement over the days when journalists had to wait in the driveway - just like TMZ! - waiting for comment from anyone nice enough to stop to speak with them.

When it came to politics and the media, Roosevelt really got it. He was the first president to travel with reporters - the first embedded journalists! - because he knew that reporters would become his friends and allies, reporting on the country's developments through a feel-good lens that made him the face of the country and the first "movie star" president.

He also understood that politics was about entertainment, not about "news."

Ever since, American journalists and politicians have been embroiled in a love/hate relationship, where one fetishes the other, gets jealous and/or jilted, and tries to start the relationship fresh the next day.

Just like Jon & Kate!

As Vanity Fair says,
"A kind of daily Socratic dialogue, or at least an attempt at one, continues to take place in the briefing room in a method of inquiry initiated by Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson's primary aide and, effectively, the nation's first press secretary: a ritual Q&A that leads to both what the White House wants you to know and away from what it doesn't want you to know."
What have you done for me lately?

In other words, the press secretary has the power - even when being hit by hard questions and, at times, humiliated by the reporters in the room. When you get down to it, the job is really about two decisions:

1. How much can and will I accommodate journalists today?
2. How much can and will I obstruct journalists today?

There's been a range of how press secretaries have answered these questions in recent times. The dark times known as, "The Bush Years."
  • Ari Fleischer, was - according to Vanity Fair - "a cold fish, and a prickly one at that."

Fleischer on Letterman. Hard to ignore Letterman's references to "Monty" and "Bill Clinton" now, ain't it?

  • Scott McClellan? "Sincere and earnest." And his nickname, christened by media critic Jay Rosen? "The Jerk at the Podium."
  • Tony Snow? Popular and cheerful.

  • Dana Perino? Glamorous and charming (and she took a mic stand in the eye for Bush when that angry dude threw his shoes at him).
Press secretary 2.0

By most accounts, Robert Gibbs is accessible and friendly.

What's new is the diminished power of the press and the White House's unparalleled direct access to its publics - the president's weekly radio address is now also the president's weekly online address. The White House website is shiny and new, and there's also a Twitter feed, and YouTube channel.

To bastardize a Frank Zappa song title, "Who needs the press corps?"

(One wonders what John McCain would've done - he who so famously once explained how he was getting a "whole bunch of names" and doing "a Google.")

The Obama White House is, according to Slate, making news conferences "less planned," and "calling on a wider range of reporters than the Bush team did."
"On balance, then, this White House has actually made the press conference more likely to generate useful news."
From one press secretary to another...

We end with Gibbs getting advice from his predecessors on ABC's This Week. And just in case you can't get enough of seeing that flak for its cameo at the end of the clip.

And here's journalist Helen Thomas' view of the news conference, from the HBO documentary, "Thank You Mr. President."

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