The Media and the Presidency
Perhaps no other institution has helped shape the presidency more than the media. In the age of 24-hour news coverage, virtually every moment of the president's public life is chronicled. Prior to the advent of television, the president rarely interacted with the press, except to occasionally grant interviews to newspapermen. Today, the press reports on the president's every movement, which at times has resulted in an adversarial relationship between the two.
Covering the president has become an industry unto itself. Hundreds of “beat reporters” — journalists who cover the White House on a daily basis — work from the basement of the White House. Twice a day, these reporters meet with the president's press secretary to get a briefing on the day's activities.
Television cameras covering these briefings have been a frequent source of friction between the press secretary and the press, as some journalists use these press briefings as an opportunity to grandstand for the cameras. Typically, the press is on call 24 hours a day, unless the press secretary puts a “lid” on the news, which means that no big announcements are planned.
Most presidents have “feuded” with particular journalists and publications at one time or another. Richard Nixon detested the Washington Post and New York Times, and had his vice president publicly attack them. The Clinton White House singled out Sue Schmidt of the Washington Post as a reporter with a vendetta against the president.
President George W. Bush publicly used an expletive to describe New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, a sentiment that Vice President Cheney agreed with. President Kennedy, on the other hand, enjoyed a cordial relationship with the press corps, partly because he singled out favorites for special treatment in return for favorable coverage.
The role of presidential press secretary is one of the most demanding and visible positions in Washington. The press secretary serves as a conduit for information between the White House and the press corps. Very few press secretaries serve a full presidential term; the average tenure is about two years. Many in the media consider Mike McCurry, President Clinton's third press secretary, among the finest ever to serve in that position.
In spite of the tension between the president and the press corps, the two have a symbiotic relationship. The president needs the press to deliver his message, and the press needs access to the president in order to do its job.
It's not uncommon for White House staffers to leak information to select journalists in order to shape the coverage. Sometimes the president will grant exclusive interviews to certain reporters as a way to dominate the headlines. During the early months of his presidency, President George W. Bush adopted nicknames for his favorite reporters, a tactic that was described as the “charm offensive.”
Once or twice a year, the president holds a press conference with the White House reporters. This is the only opportunity for the press to ask any question directly of the president of the United States. The question order is usually predetermined. It's not unheard of for the opening questions to be “plants” from the White House staff — a deal they strike with reporters eager to be in the spotlight.
The reporters who cover the White House beat form a tight-knit fraternity. When the president travels abroad or makes domestic appearances, only a limited number of reporters can travel with him. When this occurs, the reporters adopt something called “pool coverage,” which means that the reporters attending the event share their notes with the “pool” — the reporters not in attendance. Some beat reporters collaborate with their colleagues from other news outlets to make certain that they haven't missed any details or facts from a presidential event.