How TV Coverage of the White House Has Changed

Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

July 18, 2007

The relationship between the president and the press corps has taken many twists and turns over the years. Last week when President Bush cut a red, white, and blue ribbon to reopen the new, improved White House press room, his words reflected the ambiguity felt by many public officials in dealing with the demands of today’s accelerated electronic journalism.

“Welcome back to the West Wing,” the President told the correspondents. “We missed you – sort of.”

More than 30 years ago I was Gerald Ford’s press secretary. Those were the days before satellites, before 24-hour all-news cable channels, before the Internet, before cell phone cameras. Except for the AP and UPI wire services, reporters basically had only one deadline a day to worry about – 6:30 in the evening, which was when the presses rolled for the first edition of morning newspapers and when the nightly network newscasts went on the air.

This meant that reporters had all day to check the accuracy of their stories, to seek out experts for interpretation, to look for contrary viewpoints, to search the files for background information, and to write clearly and carefully.

It also meant that the White House spokesman had all day to decide what to say, how to react, to events on Capitol Hill, around the country, and around the world.

No more. Instead of a deadline every day, this is the era of a deadline every minute.

Now, if the White House makes an announcement at 11 AM, the correspondents from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC, Al-Jazeera, etc., are all standing in front of their cameras on the White House lawn at 11:01 AM — reporting live to millions of viewers around the world.

And accelerated media technologies require the White House to react with equal speed –– lest it be accused of stalling, covering up, or, worse, be depicted as confused about what to say — even though the press secretary is likely to have incomplete information and little of substance to say..

Even reporters for newspapers that won’t hit the streets until the following morning, and for weekly newsmagazines that won’t hit the newsstands for days, are affected by the new, speeded-up deadlines – they must file instantly for their publication’s website. (And rather than going out for a beer after work, they’re likely to be sitting at a keyboard and monitor, posting messages on their publication’s blog.)

The coverage is certainly faster, but not necessarily better.

Facing the unceasing demands to “go live,” White House correspondents often don’t have time to research and prepare stories of real substance, to put them in an historic perspective, to explain complex situations, or to seek other viewpoints.

And despite their best efforts, sometimes it’s easier to fall back on the easy stories, the “quick and dirty” stories, as reporters refer to them in private.

For presidential campaign coverage, that means “horse-race” stories – who’s ahead, who’s behind in the polls – rather than what policies the candidates are advocating, or ducking. For Congressional coverage, it means stories about Democratic vs. Republican bickering rather than the substance of legislative proposals.

And often it means coverage of the foibles and pratfalls of public figures from White house officials and Members of Congress to Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. So here’s my personal encouragement for journalists to keep pushing for stories about the economy, health care, climate change and other policy issues. The public will appreciate it.

Ron Nessen served as White House Press Secretary to President Gerald Ford and is currently Journalist in Residence at Brookings.