Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Conveying Presidential News: The White House Press Corps Covers the President

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Conveying Presidential News: The White House Press Corps Covers the President

Article excerpt

No matter who is president or who is doing the reporting, there is continuity in the press coverage a president receives and the news organizations with whom he regularly meets. When a new president occupies the Oval Office on January 20, 2009, he will have a waiting press corps already settled into its Press Room quarters. There will be people in place who covered his predecessors and established routines observed by media organizations concerning what news they want their reporters to gather and how they want them to do it. The more the new president and his staff understand about the workings of news organizations and the place of the White House in their reporting system, the better they will be able to make their connection to the American people.

On a day-in-day-out basis, the White House press corps is the president's link to the public. The press is the vehicle he uses to deliver information personally and to do so through surrogates as well. News organizations regularly carry his remarks and daily staff press briefings from the White House. The president also routinely meets with reporters in the White House press corps to respond to their queries and to make his own points.

For news organizations, the White House remains today the prestige beat it has been since at least the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, although current financial pressures have led some to cut back on the kind of coverage they once had (Hess 1981, 49). At the time of his inauguration, the president becomes a world leader with his every move followed by news organizations on almost every continent, not just in North America. Unlike other news beats, the White House is one combining attention to the chief executive as a person as well as a policy maker, to the institution of the presidency, and to the White House staff who serve him. Elite news organizations, particularly the wire services and the major newspapers as well as radio and television networks, commit major economic resources to the coverage of the president in order to cover all of his public moves domestically and abroad and track what is going on inside the building.

Although news organizations may send reporters to the White House on specific issues, there is a cadre of news people who give the public its daily information on what the president is doing and that forms the basis of what we know about the chief executive's statements and actions. In this article I identify ways to distinguish what constitutes the core of the White House press corps, a term used loosely by scholars, observers, reporters, and officials alike. Second, I look at what reporters view as the elements of a White House story and the continuity over time and across media in what reporters look for and how they obtain information.

The Challenges of the White House Beat

The White House is a challenging beat, first, because of the difficulty in getting information reporters want and, second, because of the breadth of the issues to be covered. Reporters cannot roam the halls of the West Wing or, since the Lyndon Johnson administration, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in search of people and stories. On the Hill, in contrast, members of Congress and their personal and committee staff are easy to locate and interview. In addition, since the 1970s reporters have extensive access to committee meetings, sessions marking up legislation, and hearings. The House of Representatives and the Senate are accessible institutions whose members and their leaders meet regularly with members of the press corps.

The White House beat is difficult because presidents and their staffs make efforts to direct reporters to certain kinds of information and away from others. Presidents and their aides have long been interested in making news when they choose with information they want released. For reporters covering the White House, getting information they seek rather than what the White House wants them to have is a challenge that is at the heart of their job (Grossman and Kumar 1981, 181-205). …

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