What happens when a campaign media operation designed for message control moves into the White House, from which accurate and timely information is expected?

Media FAIL

The Obama administration has more problems than just with whitehouse.gov, the official White House website. The press office got off to a rocky start on day one, and day two wasn’t any better. Then there were e-mail problems, followed by a dustup over access for press photographers. Obama’s administration, it seems, prefers for its official White House photographer to have exclusive access to the sort of events the press photogs are accustomed to covering as they have under previous administrations. Things have gone pretty much downhill since.

Some in the White House press corps can’t believe how difficult Obama’s media team is making it for them to get their stories out. David Cay Johnston describes the process of dealing with Obama’s White House press office, and I can’t decide whether it sounds more like dealing with a precinct of the Keystone Cops or trying to get straight information out of Pravda.

He tells of trying to get through to the office by telephone, only to get recordings asking the caller to leave a message in a maxed-out voicemail box which has no room for it. This, he says, went on for a full week. He finally got through to a human being, but unfortunately one who seemed to take personal offense at being asked to spell his name or give his job title. To add insult to injury, this public servant finally got so outraged that he hung up on Johnston. Either the press office functionary was having a very bad day, or he’s a graduate of the Kayne West School of Media Relations.

The intrepid reporter dialed again. This time his call was answered by a woman who actually spelled her name for him, but she either didn’t seem to know or didn’t want to reveal her job title to him. When he asked her for information about how Obama’s White House press office is operating, she informed him that she would pass on his “complaint.” Although she explained that she did not have authorization to comment, during the conversation she revealed that she was a “spokesperson.”

Is this any way to run a White House press office? Johnston says there are two possible explanations:

This might be the simply the problems of a new administration struggling to cope with a flood of calls and perhaps the complex machinery of the modern office. But it might also indicate that President Obama’s messages about open government have not reached press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff.

While it is too early to judge just how this will work out, the early signs are troubling. And interviews with a dozen Washington reporters indicate that the Obama press operation tends to embrace friendly questions, while treating skeptical questions as not worth their time or, worse, as coming from an enemy.

Johnston says he has been dealing with the office since the Nixon administration, and never before has he encountered personnel who refused to spell a name, failed to provide a job title, or had the sheer audacity to just hang up on him, no matter how heated the tenor of the conversation.

Let’s face the facts. E-mail server outages and other computer-related issues are no excuse for any members of the WH press office staff to fail to identify themselves or supply their job titles when asked. Four former press secretaries all told Johnston that the problems of settling in for a new administration should not require more than a week’s time.

Johnston decided to give it a third try. He got Nick Shapiro on the line, who was more than happy to give his name and even spell it, but it took several queries for the assistant press secretary to reveal his job title. It got worse:

Questions about whether Shapiro knows the difference between off-the-record, background, deep background, and on-the-record did not get asked, because Shapiro made it clear he had no interest in answering anything about how the Obama press secretary’s office is operating and what its tone will be. He said questions should be submitted in writing by e-mail to [email protected] I sent Shapiro an e-mail outlining the contours of what would be covered in an interview, but have not received a response as of this writing, the following day.

Shapiro did say that there are press office numbers to call beside 202-456-2580, which has been the main White House press office number for decades. “You should have used one of them,” he said.

And those numbers are? Shapiro said these numbers would be made public soon. (Thoughts of the illogic made famous by Kafka, Catch-22, and Lewis Carroll’s King of Hearts come to mind here.) But there is more to this than just the answering, or not answering, of telephones and questions.

Johnston worries that the Obama administration, using the White House website to take its tightly-controlled message directly to the public, may cut reporters completely out of the loop. He states the obvious – that Obama’s press office is, whatever its motives, working against the president’s campaign promises of change and transparency – and wonders if it will change.

As one who worked in the trade for over 20 years, I could have some sympathy for the plight of Johnston and his fellow journalists if only the media hadn’t let itself fall into such a lovesick swoon over Obama during the campaign. The noble fourth estate went to a point just shy of what political cartoonist Michael Ramirez suggests above. There is no excuse for the blatant pro-Obama bias it showed, and now it complains of waking up with fleas after lying down with dogs. It had better learn to deal with it, or it may discover that those first amendment rights which it has taken for granted for so long are being sharply curtailed.

– JP