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Top News Outlets Assemble New Teams in Washington -- Barack Biting to Begin Soon?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Top News Outlets Assemble New Teams in Washington -- Barack Biting to Begin Soon?

Article excerpt

So what can we expect from the White House press corps in the era of Obama?

For one thing, many faces in the press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be changing, with most news outlets staffing the beat with fresh troops, and in some cases, more of them. There is also the reality of a new president coming in, via an historic path as the first black chief executive. Will reporters be reluctant to grill him as harshly as some of the previous 43 for fear of being labeled racist? Or, to fight charges of "liberal bias," will many scrutinize his policies even more?

And how accessible will Obama be? He did not mingle informally very often with the press during his campaign, and his aides kept a tight leash on information and overall access. Will that carry over to the White House years? He did hold a press conference three days after the election, during which, a la George W. Bush, he called on reporters by their first names (though without any nicknames).

Finally, will Obama get, and does he deserve, any "honeymoon" given the string of serious problems the country faces, from the economic collapse to Iraq and Afghanistan? "For everyone, the beginning of a new administration is a chance to start over," says John Walcott, The McClatchy Co.'s Washington bureau chief. "There was reluctance early in the Bush Administration to scrutinize him enough. That had as much to do with 9/11 as it did with the White House press corps."

Walcott, whose newsroom was credited with being among the few that repeatedly questioned prewar Iraq intelligence, says reporters on that beat have to ignore any temptation to hold back or fear retribution.

He adds that none should expect a wide-open administration given Obama's record on the campaign trail: "I am not holding out hope that this administration will set a new standard for transparency. My impression is that the campaign had expressed a certain amount of control."

Steven Thomma, who covered the Clinton Administration for the former Knight Ridder bureau and now will take over a McClatchy White House post, agrees. "Every White House is more controlling than the one before," he says. "There is probably a false assumption that he is accessible. I did not see a lot of interviews. Obama was not doing them at all."

Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst, echoes that view. "Obama has not been very accessible," he says. "But all presidents are controlling in their own way."

So will Obama's historic achievement help him deflect some press scrutiny? "There is an added dimension to covering Obama because he is different than any other president," says Dean Baquet, The New York Times' Washington bureau chief. "But I don't see any conflict in being an aggressive news bureau. We will be as aggressive as we always are."

Adds Andy Alexander, bureau chief of Cox Newspapers' D.C. office, "It is a difficult question for me to answer because the only way I know is to scrutinize." Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politico and a veteran White House reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, fears that too much emphasis on Obama the man, and the history, could take away from digging and policy reporting: "There is a danger that all of the emphasis is on Obama, the first black president and the cultural change."

Lewis contends that some could ease up. "It is my firm opinion that any group of journalists is willing to cut a public official a little more slack if they like him or her," he says. …

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