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Column: How the Media Mismanages the News

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest writes notes as Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks at a press briefing at the White House May 17, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Abaca Press - Olivier Douliery)

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest writes notes as Press Secretary Jay Carney speaks at a press briefing at the White House May 17, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Abaca Press - Olivier Douliery)

Thirty-odd years ago, in between college and law school, I spent a summer as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal. For three weeks, I was assigned to the police beat. Each morning I’d arrive at the station house about 6 o’clock and go through the reports of the previous night’s calls to decide which ones looked newsworthy. If I needed more information, I’d go find it. My editor upbraided me only once: when I interviewed the department spokesman rather than one of the officers.

This bit of memory is stirred by the irony that during the same week the news media were gushing about the 100th anniversary of the presidential press conference, the office of Vice President Joseph Biden was forced to apologize for making a college journalist delete photographs of an event where Biden spoke, because the reporter wasn’t sitting in the press section. The irony arises because the actions of the vice president’s staff represent the apotheosis of what the press conference, too, is for: managing news coverage.

There’s nothing new, of course, in the efforts of White House officials — or anybody else — to influence what journalists write. The fascinating part is how controversial the practice once was. There was a time when it was thought unseemly, and perhaps unconstitutional, for the federal government to try to manage the news — so unseemly, in fact, that Congress tried to make it illegal.

An almost forgotten provision of the U.S. Code is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Enacted in 1913, and still on the books, the statute reads, in its entirety: “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.” The law was adopted for a simple purpose: to keep the White House from managing the news.

Oops.

There was a time, in living memory, when journalists instinctively regarded press secretaries and their ilk as untrustworthy. That was my editor’s point: If you want information, go to the person who has it. Many reporters used to follow this custom, priding themselves on avoiding official spokesmen at all costs. (John le Carre builds a lovely scene around this resistance in his novel The Honourable Schoolboy.)

In the United States, press secretaries appear to have been first employed by local civic groups seeking coverage in the newspaper. As recently as the middle of the 20th century, the press aide was regarded as a sort of unscrupulous hanger-on hired mainly by theatrical producers and companies selling worthless products. Certainly such a post was beneath the dignity of the federal government.

In Abraham Lincoln’s day, for example, the entire process was quite civilized. A reporter with a question would write it out and hand it to one of the president’s secretaries. If Lincoln wanted to talk about the matter, the reporter would be invited into his office for a chat. If not, there was no official statement, because there was nobody to get a statement from.

According to W. Dale Nelson’s history Who Speaks for the President? , there was no White House press corps to speak of until the end of Grover Cleveland’s administration in the 1890s. Naturally one of the White House secretaries soon had to be detailed to cope with the crush of journalists. There is some debate over who should be considered the first White House press secretary. The title wasn’t used until Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, but the function existed long before.

Indeed, the 1913 statute banning “publicity experts” was adopted by a Congress that had come to worry after seeing how skillfully Theodore Roosevelt and his assistants coddled and cajoled (and occasionally paid) reporters, who responded by writing puff pieces about the president — and nasty attacks on his political enemies. Not that the law did a blind bit of good. As press historian Stephen Ponder notes, subsequent administrations easily got around the ban by choosing another name for the position.

But the White House press corps for a long time resisted getting answers from an aide. Eisenhower’s assistant James Hagerty, the first White House aide actually called a press secretary, was viewed by journalists as dangerous, says the social historian Michael Schudson, because of his “bag of tricks for getting the administration reported in the most favorable light.” When a missile test was successful, for instance, it was announced from the White House. Announcements of failed tests were made from the proving grounds.

Nowadays the notion of managing the time and place of announcements is seen only as part of the job. That journalists who cover government so willingly go along is, like the willingness to quote the press secretary, simply a sign of how thoroughly the White House has routed its traditional adversaries in the Fourth Estate.

Schudson points to another common practice once viewed as problematic: the creation of what the historian Daniel Boorstin famously labeled the “pseudo-event” — a staged moment of negligible news value but great advantage to the White House, such as a presidential speech that offers nothing new but still must be covered because of who’s giving it.

Journalists once abhorred the pseudo-event. But Boorstin was on to something. The news, he wrote in his book The Image, used to be intermittent: “We used to believe there were only so many ‘events’ in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was no fault of the reporter.” The White House recognized long before the press did that the ubiquity of news reporting was creating a demand for a constant stream of events. From that moment on — and we are speaking of the 1950s — control of coverage began to shift from journalists to press secretaries.

Thus the Biden aide who ordered the reporter to dump his camera was only doing what press aides do: showing who’s in control. Her only error was doing it so directly.

It isn’t too late for the press to fight back. One good way to start would be to apply afresh to the federal government — especially the White House — the standard journalists used to apply to those in authority: “If you want me to include your side in my piece, provide someone with substantive responsibilities. I won’t quote a public relations flack.” Another idea would be to relegate pseudo-events — including pro-forma speeches — to the inside pages, or their digital equivalent.

Years ago, a friend who was a business reporter bragged to me about how his newspaper refused to publish statements from corporate public relations departments, insisting instead on quoting a knowledgeable executive. Those days of fierce journalistic independence are long gone, even in the business press. Coverage of the government is the right place to start bringing them back.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama, and the novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.