Political Hay

Obama’s Post-Constitutional Wingmen

Access, bias, herd mentality in Munro incident -- the corruption of the White House press corps.

By 6.19.12

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"Good evening, everybody. (Applause.) I would like to welcome you all to the 10-day anniversary of my first 100 days. (Laughter.) I am Barack Obama. Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me. (Laughter and applause.) Apologies to the Fox table. (Laughter.) They're -- where are they? I have to confess I really did not want to be here tonight, but I knew I had to come -- just one more problem that I've inherited from George W. Bush. (Laughter.)"
-- President Obama addressing the 2009 White House Correspondent's Dinner

You don't interrupt the president.

So goes the media narrative in the wake of the media hysteria surrounding the Daily Caller's Neil Munro and his so-called "heckling" of President Obama.

Yeah, right. This is bunk.

A pluperfect illustration of a double-standard, as was illustrated in this space yesterday with a video clip of the White House press corps not only interrupting then-President Ronald Reagan as he read a statement but then shouting and shrieking at him as he left the room.

But is there more than meets the eye in this dust-up over Mr. Munro? (Munro, by the way, a longtime professional who formerly reported for the respected National Journal has answered his critics here stating the obvious -- he had no intention of interrupting the President but simply thought the President had finished his statement.)

Yes. There is more here. A lot more. None of it pretty.

Someone needs to say this: There is a culture of corruption in the media world that is the White House press corps.

Let's be specific.

This corruption -- corruption defined as not honestly reporting the news or asking hard questions of the President of the United States and his White House colleagues -- revolves around three very real, very specific problems. And a looming fourth problem that we will get to shortly.

Problem One: Access -- Not unnaturally, White House reporters want access to the President, the Vice President, and the White House staff. That is, in theory at least, why there is a White House press corps in the first place. They are there to report to the rest of us -- the "rest of us" defined as both the American people and the world at large -- what's going on in the Oval Office and environs.

Sounds unremarkable, yes? In practice -- no. What happens in the real world is that the White House -- the President personally and his band of loyalists, generally represented to the press by the White House press secretary -- always have a message to get out. This fact of daily presidential necessity effectively sets up a world class game of the carrot-and-the- stick -- with the White House in charge.

If the White House likes you -- you being a White House reporter -- then presto! You get the carrot! You get the access to the President and all that this implies -- his staff, his Vice President, his wife. Even more of a bonus -- the White House will signal to your news organization that someone outside the immediate presidential orbit -- a Cabinet Secretary, say, or a major presidential ally on Capitol Hill or even outside the government -- will talk/confide/leak to your guys.

And there's another way White House correspondents seek the carrot. They use their skills to build up the image of White House official X -- from the President all the way down to the lowliest staffer.

This reality of dealing with the White House press corps would drive then-Reagan White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan to frustrated furies. Regan had succeeded the politically savvy James Baker, but his public image quickly went downhill, unlike Baker's. Regan had been the CEO of Wall Street's Merrill Lynch before becoming Reagan's Treasury Secretary, a job that suited him. But being a White House chief of staff is a political job requiring political sensibilities, which Regan, alas, did not have. He was the veritable babe in the woods when dealing with the White House press corps. He realized -- too late -- how the game was played. Why Jim Baker got favorable press -- and he didn't. Said Regan later in his unhappy memoir, For the Record:

My predecessors, and even some of the senior staff in my time at the White House, had chummed with journalists, dining with them in the evening and playing tennis with them in the cool of the mornings. I abjured these pleasures.

Regan, an older man of considerable self-made financial success, hated this kind of thing -- and so rejected the many invitations to socialize. As a result, Regan became convinced -- correctly -- that the negative stories about him piled up because the press's carrot to him was rejected. And that he, Regan, would refuse to leak inside stories to this, that, or the other member of the White House press corps -- thus generating his own personal negative press.

In short, what Regan discovered was that there was a direct relationship between leaks to reporters -- and favorable coverage of the leaker. There is no accident that people like Jim Baker or Colin Powell or the late Ted Kennedy were afloat in a veritable sea of favorable press.

It is very safe to assume that leaks from the Obama White House -- lately on matters of intelligence -- are done to generate positive coverage.

And the stick? The stick for the White House is -- no access.

For either you or your news organization. None, zero, zip, nada. You can sit there at White House press conferences until the cows come home or hell freezes over, and you will never, ever be recognized by the President when he steps into the White House briefing room or any other place he's holding a press conference..

The Obama Administration has been compared to the Nixon Administration on occasion, and the Nixon White House and Watergate is a good, non-Obama example of how the carrot and stick game works.

Needless to say, the Nixon White House was unhappy at the Washington Post's questions and investigation into what became known as the Watergate scandal. When the 1972 election was over, with Nixon beating the leftist Senator George McGovern in a landslide in spite of the Post's Neil Munro style of coverage, the Nixon White House played the stick end of the carrot-and-stick game.

In their respective memoirs, the Post's famous Watergate-era Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and the paper's owner, the late Katharine Graham, wrote of just how the stick end of this game was applied to his paper.

A reporter for the Post's then competitor (the Washington Star-News has since folded) was told by a senior Nixon aide to "come in with your breadbasket, and we'll fill it." Meaning, all the access the Star could possibly want to the world of the Nixon White House was to be granted -- to specifically punish the Post. The President's first exclusive interview in his second term went to -- a Star reporter, the Post shut out. A Post reporter -- an older woman who covered the First Lady -- was "systematically excluded from all pools, where she would have a chance to report directly, rather than accept force-fed handouts." Nixon himself was captured on the Watergate tapes saying the Post would suffer "damnable, damnable problems." Graham adds that calls were not returned, administration personnel were forbidden to attend editorial board lunches, and certainly not to accept invitations to dine at Mrs. Graham's. In short, says, Bradlee, the Post had so displeased the Nixon White House the paper was plunged into a "black hole" -- access shut off.

Take a look again at the strange silence from his colleagues surrounding Neil Munro as he asks his question. Take in all the media outrage you are hearing over Munro. What are you really seeing and hearing?

You are seeing a group of supposed professionals caught in the act of playing the carrot-and-stick game. The silence is in reality a most vocal plea for access. "Not me!" it telegraphs to the President and his staff. "I didn't do it… it was Munro over there."

These are not journalists…they are White House poodles.

And to make certain that their wagging tails are not missed -- various of these people take to the airwaves or print or blogs to condemn Munro. Message: Arf! Arf! More access please!

This carrot and stick dynamic is intended to produce a specific effect -- and we have seen evidence of how this works in just this recent incident with Mr. Munro.

We will come back to this. But on to…

Problem Two: The Herd Mentality -- Washington in general, and the White House specifically, suffers perpetually from what is frequently called the "herd mentality." Loosely defined as writing or talking about what everybody else around you is talking about. There is no room for individuality here, and in fact in a thousand ways large and small individual thinking is discouraged.

Examples? Think for a moment of Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal. Who were Woodward and Bernstein in 1972-1973? Correct -- they famously were young, aggressive reporters for the Washington Post. What were they not? Members of the White House press corps. Which is to say, all of the goings on within the Nixon White House weren't even discovered by the very people in the press whose job it was to show up at the White House press room every single working day and ask questions.

This pattern repeated itself in the Clinton scandals. Who discovered Paula Jones? Who made the discovery that over time led to the impeachment of the President for lying to a federal grand jury and a judge? Yes indeed. That discovery was made right here in the pages of The American Spectator. And who revealed the news of Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky? Right again -- Matt Drudge. Newsweek even had the story -- but they refused to run it. They hate sticks at Newsweek.

This is the herd mentality at work. At that point in their careers, Woodward and Bernstein were so young they were heedless to the herd mentality -- so they just plowed ahead. But Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and company were not immune, and as is recorded, Bradlee and Graham constantly worried that their two young reporters were not running with the herd. Graham called this period a "lonely moment" and wondering "where is everybody else?" The herd mentality is a major cultural factor in all of Washington, not to mention in the White House press corps. Mr. Munro, thankfully, clearly doesn't have the problem. But the harshly negative responses to Munro from various media personalities shows just who does. The herd is running as fast as it possibly can away from Munro -- and by extension his colleagues at the Daily Caller. Why? That's what the herd does.

And if this were 1986 and Neil Munro had done to Ronald Reagan what he did to Barack Obama? Neil Munro would have been the toast of Georgetown, the new regular on the talk show circuit, the man to be lavished with book contracts and honorary degrees. Why? That's what the herd does.

• Problem Three: Bias -- No news flash here. The charge of liberal bias in the media is an old one. But let's see how it worked in terms of the White House press corps in the two incidents involving Presidents Reagan and Obama as they appeared in front of the press corps to discuss these two issues of Iran-Contra and immigration.

Take another look at the Reagan press conference on Iran-Contra. The White House press corps is going crazy here -- not simply heckling Reagan but shrieking and shouting at him. So -- why the frenzy? Why the fury?

Let's look to the assessment of former Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes, who was on the job at that point. Speakes in his own book wrote of the White House press corps and the issue of Reagan's Central American policy. When Speakes would walk into the White House press room to brief the assembled correspondents,

… any discussion of Central America would boil down more to a debate on it than to a news session. There was just a strong bias against American [read: Reagan's] policy in Central America within the [White House] press corps.

Now.

What exactly do you think is the bias inside that White House press room today to Obama's immigration policies? Of course. These are the very people President Obama cited at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in 2009 as not just covering him but voting for him -- only to be greeted with thunderous applause and laughter.

So if you're standing there in the White House Rose Garden "covering" President Obama as he makes an announcement you agree with -- Neil Munro becomes the guy who had the audacity to, as they say, spit up at the dinner table. And applying the White House correspondent's un-written rules of access, the herd and bias -- you are going to go after Neil Munro with everything you've got.

If, on the other hand, you are sitting in the White House press room covering President Reagan as he makes an announcement you disagree with -- indeed are in furious disagreement with -- then interrupting the President is not only no big deal -- the herd is running and you can and will interrupt and yell to your heart's content.

And while we're on the subject of bias -- let's deal directly with charges from leftists that acting like a real journalist is racist. That's right, Mr. Munro is being accused of being a racist because he is white (a legal immigrant from Ireland, by the way) and the President is black.

One can only be astounded at Tommy Christopher's racial obsession over at Mediaite, surfacing not for the first time. Christopher is rapidly gaining a reputation as a journalistic George Zimmerman, although in fairness to Zimmerman a jury has yet to hear the facts and decide whether Zimmerman was actually racially profiling Trayvon Martin.

There is no such question about Christopher, who as with many liberals (here is Congressman Elijah Cummings's latest) is obsessed with Obama's race. It was Christopher, remember, who characterized a Romney campaign banner that read "Obama Isn't Working" as -- really and truly -- "evocative of a nasty racial stereotype about black men."

This time around Christopher wrote the following:

In the aftermath of Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro's clownish outburst in the Rose Garden Thursday afternoon, MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart ably explained to the ignorant likes of Tucker Carlson, the difference between shouting impromptu questions after an event, and interrupting a President during remarks. Guest Julian Epstein asked the inevitable question "Would the right-wing press be doing this if we had a white president there?"

Putting aside the obvious answer -- yes, Messrs. Christopher, Capehart, and Epstein, reporters really did interrupt the white Ronald Reagan and yes, Mr. Capehart, they most assuredly did interrupt Ronald Reagan during his remarks -- there's more here than just, let us say, "clownish" historical ignorance.

Mr. Christopher's racial obsessions should be seen in context. They are but the latest dreary exhibition of the ham and eggs tie between progressives and racism that we have documented here and here and here. The racial obsessions of the Left written, sad to say, in the hard drive of American history. Never forget when dealing with progressives that race is the base -- and which race never matters. They are interchangeable when it comes time to push the progressive agenda.

The ignorance of presidential history on display here by Christopher and the others, not to mention the traditional racial obsessions exhibited whether lefties are supporting slavery, segregation, lynching, the Klan, racial quotas or illegal immigration is breathtaking if unsurprising.

Now, onto the last point.

Mark Levin wrote a book that came out in January of this year called Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America. In writing of how ancient left-wing fantasies of utopia have been injected into the American bloodstream as a post-Constitutional Ameritopia, Levin cited two notable quotes. The first, from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1829:

[G]overnments are not always overthrown by direct and open assaults. They are not always battered down by the arms of conquerors, or the successful daring of usurpers. There is often concealed the dry rot, which eats into the vitals, when all is fair and stately on the outside. And to republics this has been the more common fatal disease. The continual drippings of corruption may wear away the solid rock, when the tempest has failed to overturn it.

The second was from Benjamin Franklin, who in 1787 said of the newly written U.S. Constitution that it

…is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall be corrupt as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other… 

Alas, the Obama Executive Order on immigration -- the highly controversial subject of the Obama talk in the Rose Garden -- is exactly to Levin's point.

No less than Obama himself went last year to La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, and said:

Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own. (Applause.) And believe me, right now dealing with Congress --

AUDIENCE: Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!

THE PRESIDENT: Believe me -- believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. (Laughter.) I promise you. Not just on immigration reform. (Laughter.) But that's not how -- that's not how our system works.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Change it!

THE PRESIDENT: That's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written." 

Got that? "The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting…But that's not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written."

And yet -- that is exactly what Barack Obama did on Friday as he stood in the Rose Garden on Friday in full view of the White House press corps. He went right ahead and executed the next step in attaining a Post-Constitutional America.

With the exception of Neil Munro of the Daily Caller no one -- no one -- had a single question.

The rest of the group? They acted not as journalists but as presidential wingmen. Aiding and abetting a Post-Constitutional president as he stepped baldly in front of the cameras to do something he himself admitted was "tempting" but un-constitutional.

What would you expect?

Perhaps this is why even NBC 's Tom Brokaw, a former White House correspondent himself, has expressed his concern about the big glitzy White House Correspondent's Dinner (which, full disclosure, I have attended) and what it has come to represent:

If there's ever an event that separates the press from the people it's supposed to serve, symbolically, it's that one. It is time to rethink it… I don't think the big press event in Washington should be that kind of glittering event where the whole talk is about Cristal champagne…, who had the best party, who got to meet the most people. That's another separation between what we're supposed to be doing and what the people expect us to be doing, and I think the Washington press corps has to look at that.

Think of that Brokaw description ("glittering….the whole talk about Cristal champagne…who had the best party, who got to meet the most people") and add it to where we began -- with President Obama's joke to members of that same group that "…Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me."

Then think of how the White House press corps treated Ronald Reagan in that one film clip -- and the obsequious silence with which they greeted Barack Obama last Friday.

This is no longer a group devoted to hard journalism. This is a group whose addiction to access, the herd mentality, combined with the prevailing winds of liberal bias effectively radiates a kingdom of insiderdom -- a culture of corruption.

Is it any wonder why so many Americans look at the White House press corps not as reporters but as little more than presidential wingmen -- flying protectively along at his side as this president tries to rocket this country into a post-Constitutional America?

With only one journalist in their midst-- an immigrant from Ireland, no less -- who has the guts to stand up and demand answers.

Naturally, the push will be on to do the obvious.

The obvious? Meaning clean up the White House press corps by making sure Neil Munro never steps foot inside the White House grounds for the remainder of the Obama presidency.

After all, you can't have a real journalist at the White House asking questions, now, can you?

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.