Reading Steve Clemons’s screed on “Communications Corruption at the White House” brought me back to my freshman year intro to sociology class when we read the famous allegory, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema“. Nacirema is a satire, mocking anthropological papers on “other” cultures revealing just how out of touch an analysis can be when shown in the light of proper context.
Clemons criticizes the White House communications staff’s use of access as a means to shape positive coverage of the President’s agenda. Instead, Clemons offers his best advice as a hardened communications strategist, “The White House needs to do its part and provide access based on the merits of high quality, even hard-hitting analysis and reporting, not on seduction.” I’m sorry but what? Why should it be the White House’s job to provide “access” based on the quality of analysis?
Shouldn’t the White House just provide adequate information and answers to questions based on a defined standard of transparency? Access has nothing to do with this equation. This is where Clemons and many who criticize the flacking skills of the White House staff have their wires crossed. Access to descriptions of the inner dynamics of the White House and interpersonal politics of staff have nothing do to with the communications team’s job. They may be fodder for compelling journalism, but that’s the absolute last thing White House press staff should worry about.
Clemons is offering a slightly more detailed version of the tired old gripe we hear every few months of every administration about the dearth of Presidential press conferences. Presidential press conferences, access to inside gossip, these kinds of things have little bearing on the administration’s service to the public interest. And often all they do is further distract us from thoughtful discourse on substantive issues (See Louis Gates, Henry Jr.).
If anyone is to blame for the conflicting priorities of access and balanced coverage it’s the White House press corps. They’re the ones clamoring for access in the first place, because it offers the ratings, readership and prestige reporters and editors thrive on.
The broader point here is that if you’re looking to the White House, this or any other, to be the arbiter and enabler of high-quality journalism you’re barking up the wrong tree.