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WH press corps newly ‘tamed,’ but news vets say just wait

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The White House press corps, once accustomed to examining the world in excruciating detail, is now under the microscope.

Speculations are afoot among observers who say the media have gone soft, solemnly rising when President Obama walks into the room or delivering cushy questions like strategic softballs. Journalists, the arguments go, are either delirious over Mr. Obama or shellshocked by eight years with President Bush.

But look out.

"Have no fear. The White House press corps will come to life in good time," said Sam Donaldson, a longtime ABC News anchorman.

"Right now, President Obama is riding a great wave of public approval and, let's face it, so far has not made any large missteps. But his real challenges lie ahead and, as all presidents do, he will face some tough times. And, I say again, fear not: The press corps will do its duty in holding his 'feet to the fire.' "

White House reporters used to shout their questions with gusto.

The fierce gaggle has been "tamed," said CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered the ebb and flow of presidents since 1976.

"Not unlike Pavlov's dogs, reporters at the White House have undergone some reward and denial training by President Bush. He didn't like being shouted at; he didn't respond to shouted questions; and reporters who engaged in the practice didn't get called on. So most of us stopped doing it," Mr. Knoller said.

Formal seating charts were a civilizing influence on journalists, who once timed their screams of "Mr. President" at the close of a news conference, just in case a last-minute answer was in the offing. And savvy female reporters wore red to draw attention to themselves, he said.

"To the extent we've been 'tamed,' it's only on that shouting, hand-waving issue," Mr. Knoller said. "There are occasions when we'll continue to shout questions. And I think the nature of our questions shows that we're not pulling our punches with respect to pointed questions - even when the president is asked about his level of enchantment, surprise and humility at the White House."

Mr. Knoller is referring to New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny's question at a televised White House news conference last week.

"Jeff Zeleny ought to be mocked by his colleagues for at least a year. It sounded like he was trying to re-create a puffball Barbara Walters interview. But it's a stunning contrast with the infamous question Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller asked President Bush in 2004 - whether he felt a 'personal responsibility' for the dead Americans on 9/11," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center.

The timing of newfound press civility could be off for some, though.

"The press was thought to be an unruly lynch mob for years. The public held journalists in low esteem not so much for what they wrote, but how they behaved," said S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

"Over the years, conservatives demanded that the news media be more deferential to the president. Now they're doing that. The trouble for conservatives, though, is that these new manners are directed at a liberal president," Mr. Lichter said.

The civility quotient is subject to interpretation, however.

Members of the White House press corps stand for Mr. Obama but not for Mr. Bush, at least in a video clip comparing press behavior from the two eras, produced by Politico writer Patrick Gavin.

"I just thought it was an interesting clip to whip together. More funny than anything, since, as I also noted, the press corps 'did' on occasion rise for Bush, so I'm more curious why there's an inconsistency in protocol," he said.

"Few people today remember the White House press corps as a shouting scrum at presidential press conferences, and even fewer would want to return to that era. I don't have a problem with reporters standing upon the president's arrival if we stand for the entrance of the local traffic judge. But if they only do it for presidents they like, then they're telegraphing their favoritism," said Mr. Graham of the Media Research Center.

"It's a long-standing practice for reporters to rise when the president enters the East Room. Over the years, that practice was not always observed in the White House briefing room, where the crowding made it more difficult and time consuming to rise and sit," Mr. Knoller said, also noting that the press room was simply a more casual environment.

Some serious money issues are involved in a compliant press, meanwhile.

Broadcast networks and cable channels have capitulated three times to Mr. Obama's request to sacrifice prime time - and advertising dollars - to showcase the White House. The president's recent "100 days" news conference cost ABC, NBC and CBS a combined $10 million in lost revenue, according to an industry estimate.

But the ratings were also down. About 29 million watched the event a week ago. In March, Mr. Obama's news conference drew 40 million; in February, about 50 million tuned in.