The non-power of the press

Bush aides check star status of White House journos

When President Bush called a rare impromptu press conference to explain his Iraq policy to the American people on March 21, NBC’s David Gregory wasn’t there to deliver his typical tough question.

Instead, he was subbing in for Matt Lauer on “Today.” Gregory is all over the NBC airwaves, doing calisthenics with Katie Couric, subbing for Chris Matthews on “Hardball” and doing Bush impressions on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”

Clearly, the role of White House correspondent isn’t what it used to be.

White House correspondent once was considered the premier job for journalism’s best and brightest — and a stepping stone to bigger things, as people like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson parlayed their role into news stardom.

“It was the glamour beat; that’s where you put your star reporter,” says CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer.

With unprecedented message discipline and a dearth of free agents willing to divulge real information, the Bush administration has brought a new level of frustration to the beat. While the heady act of walking through the White House gates to work can sustain some reporters for a career, the cloistered atmosphere can be dispiriting.

“You don’t get many scoops out of the White House — no one does,” says Fox News host Brit Hume, who was ABC News’ chief White House correspondent during the Clinton administration.

Each White House manages the press corps with greater sophistication and efficiency, giving the truly ambitious a reason to look beyond the briefing room to make their mark.

“It’s confining, both physically and intellectually,” says ABC’s Terry Moran, who left the White House beat to join “Nightline.” “You’re cooped up in a bubble all the time; they herd you like sheep. You’re always focused on this one person and the administration. The president makes news by saying and doing things, so your stories are often, ‘The president did this today.'”

So meaningless are the daily disgorgements from the White House that Schieffer says he’s contemplated sending an intern there to take notes and sending the reporters to Capitol Hill, where there are 535 members of Congress, all with their own agendas and motivations to talk.

“It’s a much harder beat to cover now than it ever was,” he says.

Diminished prestige means doing time at the White House is no longer a prerequisite for the anchor’s chair. If Couric joins CBS from “Today,” two of three network anchors won’t have any White House experience, and NBC’s Brian Williams spent less than two years on the beat.

Brokaw left the White House with some apprehension to join “Today,” but that move seemed prescient after he became “Nightly News” anchor for 22 years. Increasingly, the morning shows drive the news agenda of the day and offer a clearer path to the exalted evening anchor job.

The starkest example of that new reality was when CBS passed over John Roberts for “Evening News” anchor, a move that ended up depriving the network of TV’s most recognizable White House correspondent when he moved to CNN in February.

Increasingly, Washington’s top journalistic personalities are hosts of political shows like Hume, Matthews, Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos, but their currency isn’t the journalistic scoop so much as the interview “get” — who’s talking to whom about what.

“Interviewing has replaced reporting as the high-profile position,” says TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

It’s a lot easier than trying to pry substantial information that the administration doesn’t want out, a task still carried out in relative anonymity.

When the Clinton administration began daily televised press briefings, at the behest of CNN, it seems reasonable to expect White House correspondents would get many more chances to build careers like Rather did with his televised confrontations with President Nixon.

Instead, televised briefings have had their own diminishing effect — both on the press and the White House — as viewers see just how tightly controlled the performance is and how little of value comes of it.

So the solution, as NBC’s Gregory proves, is to diversify.

At 35, Gregory has become the alpha dog of the White House press corps, assuming a new level of fame after his confrontation with White House spokesman Scott McClellan after Dick Cheney’s hunting accident. But Gregory is building a career much broader than the briefing room.

He’s turning up on “Today” with greater frequency. “He’s on the top of his game at the White House,” says NBC News prexy Steve Capus. “Where he goes remains to be seen.”

Gregory says, ” ‘The Today Show’ is an interesting mix of hard news and lighter fare. You have to be pretty versatile to handle all of that.”

On March 20, instead of the president, Gregory was grilling the so-called “Real Housewives of Orange County,” in advance of their cable debut on NBC U-owned Bravo.

“Your husband wanted you to get breast implants and you complied?” Gregory asked, putting the screws to self-described “trophy wife” Kim Bryant.

“Aren’t you a standup comedian, too?” she later asked him. “No, no,” he said, “I stick to news.”