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Minding Our Business


Where the White House meets the press

Published by The State, August 6, 2006.

The White House pulled the rug out from under its press corps this week. The chairs and drapes, too. The drapes were faded; the chairs dilapidated. The rug, as I recall, was pretty disgusting.

The White House press briefing room will undergo a nine-month renovation. On the day they hung construction zone signs, President Bush sounded as though he might miss his inquisitors.

"It's a beautiful bunch of people," Bush told a standing-room crowd. "You deserve better than this."

And so the press corps is being moved out of the house, beyond the security perimeter, across Pennsylvania Avenue and through the park to temporary quarters on Jackson Place. For reporters who crave access, thrive on proximity and have been known to elbow and spike each other jockeying for position, that's banishment to Washington's Siberia.

Not even a young mother on her first child's first day of school suffers separation anxiety the way a journalist does.

The reportorial riff-raff will be allowed back to cover Presidential events, pronouncements and the still scarce Bush news conferences. You might not notice the difference.

Does the nine-month dislocation much matter? It could.

The briefing room is a front line of sorts where the administration and the media joust over policies, politics and the peccadilloes of power. (Don't try to say that in front of a TV camera on the White House lawn.)

I spent nine years of my journalism career there covering Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. During the 1991 Gulf War, my foxhole was on the White House lawn; my bunker, a basement booth; my command post, a second-row seat behind Helen Thomas.

On television, the briefing room looks deceptively larger. NBC's "West Wing" drama even gave it a tinge of glamour. In reality, there are only 36 assigned seats. Wires snake everywhere. Photographers' ladders crowd the walls. There are rats.

On any given day, 80 or 100 type ‘A ' personalities clamor for tidbits of information and nuggets of insight to set their reporting apart from the herd. Those insights are sometimes gleaned when a senior official stops to chat with a reporter. President Bush himself—Dad, not son—would wander into the briefing room.

The press corps has gotten the boot before. During an early Reagan renovation reporters were removed next door to the Old Executive Office Building. That was, though, a time when you could still drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, park next to the White House and move about with some degree of freedom. Every security breach—the Reagan assassination attempt, a fence jumper, 9/11—has produced incremental or exponential increases in security and decreases in access.

The Clinton administration sought to bar the press from the offices of the press secretary. The indomitable Helen Thomas would beat on the press room door before most staffers had their first coffee. The Clintons relented.

White House reporters have long feared some administration would move them out permanently. We may not always have distinguished ourselves or won public sympathy, given as we are to asking impertinent questions: Did you trade arms for hostages? Did you deal with Saddam Hussein? What were your relations with Monica Lewinsky? Those were questions that needed to be asked, over and over if necessary.

It's not the reporters' job to make a president look good, nor intentionally to make one look bad. They succeed or fail on their own.

I've always felt the job was expository: Tell what's happening, what it means and why the reader or viewer should care.

The sausage-making process has not always been conducted in full public view. Live televised White House briefings were rare in the Reagan White House, occasional in Bush One and only became regular in the Clinton administration.

The media and the White House similarly project images and convey messages, but not identically. During the 1991 war, President Bush held one press briefing at the same time caskets of American servicemen were being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base. CNN, for one, used a split screen to project both images. The White House hated it.

Press secretary Tony Snow assured the press corps that it will return next year to a revamped and, if no more spacious, more technologically capable briefing room. One expected change is the installation of a video wall behind the podium. The president or press secretary can control an ever-changing backdrop to suit the occasion. Or even power point the press into submission.

Let's hope not. Don't discard the hard hats.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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