Tensions between White House, media hit boiling point

WASHINGTON — It was an article of faith among conservatives before Senator Barack Obama became President Barack Obama, and it has persisted through his re-election: When it comes to the supposedly liberal mainstream media and the first African American Democratic president, it’s a veritable love fest.

The reality, at least among those who cover the president, has been quite a bit different. Reporters have grumbled for years about being ignored, dismissed and even insulted by White House press officials. More than usual, the White House’s relationship with the press corps has been marked by simmering tension and even mutual contempt.

And now the temperature has been raised to a boil.

The Justice Department’s revelation that it secretly subpoenaed the Associated Press’ phone records in order to hunt down the source of a national security leak has elicited nearly unanimous criticism and condemnation of the department’s action from news organizations.

The media’s unusual united front was spelled out in a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a group that includes the major television networks, magazine publishers and newspapers, including The Washington Post. It called the government’s subpoena of the AP records, “an overreaching dragnet” by the department and demanded the return of phone logs taken from four AP bureaus and reporters’ personal phones.

“The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case,” the letter read.

In his White House news briefing Tuesday, press secretary Jay Carney deflected numerous questions about the matter. He repeated his statement from Monday that the White House only learned of the story from media accounts. “We are not involved at the White House in any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations, as those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently,” he said.

Despite the conservative portrayal of the press as Obama’s handmaiden, relations between reporters and the White House have never been sunny. Journalists have often been frustrated by what they see as a disdainful and belittling attitude toward them by members of the White House’s communications office, formerly headed by Dan Pfeiffer and now led by Jennifer Palmieri.

Many White House journalists have been on the receiving end of scathing assessments of their work from White House press officials, replete with four-letter words and an occasional shouting match. Some have characterized it as a tactic to nudge them into accepting the administration’s view.

Reporters also have resented being bypassed as the White House takes its message directly to the public via social media, blogs and its website. Obama has granted few interviews to news organizations that regularly cover the president, going instead to soft-focus infotainment outlets such as “The View.”

“This is a White House that tries as much as possible through digital media to cover itself,” said Scott Wilson, The Washington Post’s veteran White House correspondent.

However, he added, “in a time of scandal, the independent media becomes much more important to them.”

Clearly on the defensive — as much because of questions about its handling of the September attack in Benghazi and a budding IRS scandal — the White House’s press operation cranked up the charm and access on Tuesday. It invited a select group of reporters from leading news outlets to off-the-record briefings about the Benghazi, IRS and Justice Department stories with a senior communications official. Veteran reporters described the invitations as an almost unheard-of step.

“All of a sudden, they need us,” said one reporter who attended the briefing but asked not to be identified to preserve his working relationships.

The sudden openness suggests that the media’s unified anger over the AP story could force the administration to do what it has seemed reluctant to do for the past five years — work more closely with the news media to explain and defend itself.

“Now, they need the media’s [perceived] neutrality and credibility” to get their message across, another White House reporter said.

From the media’s perspective, the phone-records story is “a unifying event,” said Ben Feller, who covered the White House for the Associated Press for six years and now manages a communications firm in New York. “If there’s one area that the press [agrees about], it’s freedom of the press… . This does prompt outrage [among the media] because of the egregious scope of it.”

That view brought a somewhat cynical response from Ari Fleischer, who was President George W. Bush’s press secretary. He suggests that the two events that “shattered” the media’s relationship with Obama both directly affected the media: the Justice Department’s investigation of the Associated Press and the White House’s decision to shield Obama from reporters during a weekend golf outing in March. “It’s a sad reflection on the press,” Fleischer said. “They gave him the benefit of the doubt until it became about them.”

Joe Lockhart, who served as President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re in for a very rocky period between the White House and press. [The Justice Department story] is an unusual and difficult situation for the White House. It’s an emotional issue for reporters, and for good reason. It will spill over into other areas in the way in which the mainstream media looks at the White House.”

Lockhart says there’s no easy fix for Palmieri and Carney. Lockhart compared White House press coverage with a supertanker — it takes a long time to turn it in a different direction, and it’s hard to turn it again once it’s set on a new course. The only thing that can shift its direction, he said, is a change in the news itself.

His advice: “Stick to your game plan. Focus on the things that the American public are most interested in — health care, a growing economy — and not just what we’re arguing about in Washington today.”

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