President-elect's celebrity affects media focus

Thanks to the election of Barack Obama, some stardust is about to fall over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

And White House reporters are lining up for their share of the fanfare.

“With President Bush a lame duck, it’s been a little sleepy here,” says Ed Henry, who has been on the White House beat for CNN since 2006 and will remain when Obama arrives. Henry thinks the excitement generated by Obama “will help restore the White House back to a really prestige beat.”

With more than a little glam, too.

“It’s fair to say this White House will have a really different character, because this president is a celebrity in a way that no other president before him has been,” says Peter Baker, a New York Times reporter who is headed back to cover the White House in January. Baker covered Clinton’s second term and part of George W. Bush’s second term for his previous employer, the Washington Post.

“There will be extraordinary interest in him both here and in the world, partly because he’s the first African-American president but also because this is a time of great crises,” Baker adds. “All of it makes it an extraordinary time to be covering the White House.”

Extraordinary, yes, but also difficult. Possibly even maddening.

Robert Gibbs, the Obama campaign communications director who is expected to be named White House press secretary, has a reputation for determinedly staying on message. And every White House has a reputation for “spoonfeeding” reporters only bits of real information, says Chip Reid, who covered the second Clinton term for MSNBC but is returning to cover Obama for CBS News.

No serious news org sends an understudy or even yeoman to cover the White House. As former NBC News anchor and White House-beat alum Tom Brokaw once put it, “You’re not just a member of the chorus line when you’re there.”

White House reporters tend to be seasoned, savvy and aggressive questioners. CNN’s Henry, for instance, relishes the give-and-take (and sometimes Punch-and-Judy) nature of press briefings.

The correspondents are well aware of “the surround-sound cloud that is delivering Obama to the White House,” as Baker calls it. But they’re girding for it.

“I’m not supposed to be starry-eyed,” Reid says. “I’ve got to make sure I’m not swept away by it all. I don’t want to be steely-eyed. But not starry-eyed, either.”

Henry says White House reporters will have to remain focused on their task, regardless of the hoopla.

“You could see it already when Obama came to visit and talk with Bush,” Henry says. “You could see it on everyone’s face that it was a dramatic moment. But we’re going to have to hold Obama to all the things he said about openness and transparency.”

Those two things are ostensibly the points of the daily press briefing, but ever since Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry decided the midday event should be televised live, the briefing has morphed into political theater.

Sam Donaldson was covering the White House for ABC News back then, and as he said at the time, McCurry “knew we couldn’t go after him without making ourselves look like animals.”

Prior to the switch to televised briefings, said Donaldson, “we could really go after a spokesman. By the end there might be blood on the floor, but at least we’d have our information. We can’t do that now.”

“It’s still true,” says Martha Raddatz, who’s been at the White House for ABC News since 2005. “You know people are watching and you can’t press too much because you don’t want to end up being the story, and they (White House reps) know that.”

So, while it looks like reporters are trying to extract answers about issues of the day, what actually happens is a game of probe-and-feint. Reporters try to suss out what lines the White House is trying to flog that day, and the White House gets an advance on the directions the press corps may be headed in for the rest of the afternoon.

But how Gibbs will perform in this dynamic is anyone’s guess. While he’s a veteran of partisan campaigns, it’s different to be standing in front of scores of reporters — and millions of viewers –trying to explain or defend often complicated policy.

“One misstep can kill you,” Reid notes.

Having shown a willingness to challenge even a relatively minor blog posting about his boss, Gibbs is also known for affability with reporters.

Baker had lunch with him a week after the election. “He seems friendly, but give him a few months and he’ll probably hate us like everyone else.”

One thing is certain: For at least the immediate future, viewer interest in the White House beat will be high.

But more eyes also means more pressure to get the story right.

“That’s true,” says Henry. “But hey, we never not like having more eyes on us.”

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