A White House correspondent’s life in brief

Posted Saturday, May. 17, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Reporter Lesley Clark once got close enough to President Barack Obama at an international summit meeting to notice that he was chewing gum. “I think it was that nicotine stuff,” she recalls.

OK, not exactly a major scoop. But the point, for White House reporters like Clark — who works for the Star-Telegram’s parent company, the McClatchy newspaper chain — is that such up-close glimpses of the president are rare. Outside of one of Obama’s irregular news conferences, or official ceremonies, correspondents don’t see the president much, and almost never in ways in which he isn’t scripted, choreographed or otherwise camera-ready.

Clark’s friends and family, and likely some of her readers, think that she hobnobs with Obama and his advisers all the time. They see the news media doing their job on TV, and they watch fictional programs about the White House, so they think they know what she does. They don’t.

For most of the press corps, life is largely about closed doors. On most days, the only people at the White House who will talk to a reporter such as Clark, at least on the record, are the people paid to do so — the phalanx of “communications” aides and press attaches who give the official spin on events.

That doesn’t make reporters like Clark “stenographers” — the tiresome putdown of people who dislike the White House press corps. But neither is the beat the glamorous pinnacle of political journalism that glitzy self-celebrations like the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner suggest.

The ironic thing about the dinner, which took place May 3, is that reporters will spend more time in Obama’s presence there than they do on almost every workday.

Conflicted interest

Clark has been on the White House beat for three years for McClatchy, and during that time, she has been able to ask the president a direct question just once. It was in July 2011, and Obama was in a rare period of direct engagement with the media, appearing almost weekly to pressure Congress into lifting the federal debt ceiling. She asked him whether the administration was enlisting business leaders to lobby Republicans. She even got in a follow-up question about “contingency plans” if a deal couldn’t be reached.

That opportunity hasn’t happened since.

Despite spending her workdays a few dozen feet from the West Wing and the first family’s residence, Clark has been to the Oval Office only three times — on each occasion as part of the press “pool” that stands in for the news media at large. She has never been past the first floor of the main building. She’s not sure Obama knows her name.

Ask Clark how she feels about her work, and she’ll give you a surprising answer: a bit conflicted.

Conflicted? Journalists spend years working to get on the White House beat (Clark did); they follow the president around the world (she just returned from covering Obama’s trip to Japan) and show off their photos of riding on Air Force One on social media (guilty, says Clark). They’re covering the biggest issues of the day around the most famous and powerful man on the planet.

Yes, says Clark, “it’s pretty awesome to cover a beat that affects people around the world and the U.S., and to witness history in the making.” Yet, she adds quickly, “there’s a disconnect to be covering something and to rarely — if ever, lately — get the opportunity to pose questions to the person you’re covering.”

Clark, 49, occupies a middle rung on the White House beat. Although she works for a major newspaper chain — McClatchy reaches millions of readers through its 30 daily newspapers — the White House tends to channel important interviews to a few influential outlets, such as the TV networks and strategically important regional media.

Leaks and the thinking of “senior administration officials” tend to wind up in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Often, officials bypass reporters altogether by breaking news on the White House’s widely followed Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Clark tries to close the gap through her own shoe-leather enterprise. When Obama decried the national pay gap between men and women, for instance, she ran her own analysis on White House staff salaries, finding a similar gap. Applying the same criteria as Obama used in his comparison, she wrote, shows that “the average female pay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is less than the average male pay.”

Clark’s middling position in the press corps’ pecking order is almost physically true. During the ritual daily press briefings — the basic building blocks of White House reporting — she occupies McClatchy’s assigned seat in the third row, middle, of the seven-row press room.

That puts her in a kind of no-man’s land. The first two rows of the briefing room are occupied by the favored sons and daughters of the White House media — the wire service reporters, TV correspondents and representatives of the Post, the Times and The Wall Street Journal. At any given briefing, press secretary Jay Carney will spend most of his time answering questions from reporters in those two rows, leaving the likes of Clark continually raising their hands to no avail.

On the outside

The dominance of the front rows got so bad that the White House Correspondents’ Association recently went to bat for the backbenchers, asking Carney and his lieutenants to work more of the room. Clark says that Carney used to spend about 90 percent of his time on the front row, but he has improved since the association raised the issue: “He may be at about 70 percent now.”

Carney says that he tries to spread things around but that he is often barraged by the folks up front. “The problem I can’t solve is the fact that, once called upon, residents of the first row tend to ask a multitude of questions, thereby eating up a lot of the briefing,” he says. “TV reporters do this the most. I know other reporters are frustrated by this.”

But the briefing is only the start of the freeze-out for reporters such as Clark. When the daily sessions break up, Clark sometimes watches as selected reporters are escorted out of the room to private briefings with the proverbial unnamed officials. Those insider sources will be cited in subsequent news media reports about the Obama administration’s “thinking” on this or that issue.

Clark and her boss, Steve Thomma, a veteran reporter who heads the correspondents’ association, have complained about being left out, but it’s unclear whether that has made any difference.

“It’s demoralizing,” Clark says. “They’re better at inclusion now, but it’s still infuriating. You’re covering the same issues. You’re there, too, and you want to know what they’re talking about.”

Some mornings, when she starts the day by checking the news, her heart sinks. She’ll see all that she missed — all the tidbits and scooplets dropped by those senior administration officials to those other reporters, the privileged ones. “Sometimes I feel like pulling the covers over my head,” she says.

Clark worked her way up to the White House beat through a series of newspaper reporting jobs, starting out of college in her native Massachusetts, with stops in Connecticut and Florida.

She has covered a journalistic gamut — schools, cops, the environment, local and state politics. She covered the state legislature in Tallahassee for the Orlando Sentinel for several years and Florida’s congressional delegation for The Miami Herald, a McClatchy paper.

Compared with those beats, Clark sometimes thinks covering the White House is a little like another one she covered when she worked in Orlando: the Walt Disney Co.’s sprawling theme parks. “They were so locked down, so opaque,” she says.

Cramped quarters

White House reporters usually produce their stories out of a cramped warren of desks behind the White House briefing room. The workspace feels a bit like a submarine, with a low ceiling and no windows. Even when just a few people occupy the two floors of space, everyone has to turn sideways to slither past one another. During heavy rains, the basement carpet can become a sodden mess.

The briefing room itself — the venue that C-SPAN viewers see — is more telegenic but hardly grand. It’s roughly the size of a large high school classroom, with 49 flip-down seats, each assigned by the White House Correspondents’ Association based on an organization’s frequency and history on the beat. The rear of the room is crammed with a warehouse’s worth of cameras and other broadcast equipment.

Behind the lectern and small stage on which Carney meets the news media each day are more spacious offices that house the White House’s communications staff, including Carney. Reporters are permitted to wander into this section (known as “lower” and “upper” press, because of its modest split level) to talk to staffers. They can also stake out the exterior of the West Wing office from which dignitaries emerge after meeting the president, although this is a bit of a crapshoot; many officials simply leave through a back door to avoid the press.

And that’s essentially the sum total of Clark’s unescorted access to the White House complex. She and dozens of other press-badge-wearing denizens are free to roam within this tight zone, which spans just a few hundred square feet.

Way back when, Clark knows that it was a different — perhaps even easier — job. John F. Kennedy regularly hosted favored reporters in the Oval Office. Harry S. Truman joined in poker games with the hacks who covered him. Franklin Roosevelt held two off-the-record news conferences with reporters every week.

Until Richard Nixon’s presidency, says Thomma, reporters could wander through the Old Executive Office Building and into the lobby of the West Wing to do interviews. But Nixon succeeded in corralling reporters by covering up the White House swimming pool and creating the press-briefing room.

Since then, every White House has “looked for new ways to control the story and limit … access,” says George Condon Jr. of the National Journal, who has been covering the White House since the Reagan administration. “I won’t say it is harder to cover this White House. Let’s just say, the challenges are different.”

Clark can vouch for that. Her friends and family members often ask her another question about her job: What’s Obama really like? After three years of being on the beat, the honest answer, she says, is that she doesn’t really know.

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