In the aftermath of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation, political journalists in Washington joked that President Barack Obama managed to respond faster to Rolling Stone than he had to the BP oil spill. I wonder if Obama administration staffers see it differently: A months-old quote in a music magazine managed to have a bigger impact on national affairs than all the Twitterers in the elite White House press corps put together.
The glamour and historic nature of the Obama White House have turned covering it into a growth industry in terms of both the number of journalists on the beat and the number of items they produce. Politico has at least half a dozen writers covering the administration at any given time, and by that I don't mean "every day," but rather "every minute." And by "covering," I don't mean "reporting." I'm not sure what I mean. By noon on one recent day, Politico's "Whiteboard" blog had eight posts, mostly reprinting White House press releases.
I observed a year ago, when the sheen on the Obama White House had yet to be tarnished by any scandal, that, historically, the White House briefing room is where news goes to die. Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent. A thorough debunking of the George W. Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers' State Department and national security correspondents. Bush's abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe's legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off the Washington Post's metro desk.
And while young war reporter Michael Hastings was digging up his McChrystal scoop, what was the White House press corps writing about? Well, it was tax season, so there were stories about the Obamas' income. The White House got huffy about some Elena Kagan coverage, and so reporters dutifully reported that. It was also the anniversary of the procurement of the First Dog. It's not that these stories don't matter - indeed, Bo the Dog is a bright spot on the president's domestic agenda - but they don't require much in the way of reporting.
In fact, the only real news to come out of the White House press corps of late was when a reporter in the group became the story itself, i.e., Helen Thomas' inflammatory remarks about Israeli Jews and her subsequent resignation. That was followed by a flurry of juvenile jockeying among the remainder of the corps for her actual seat in the briefing room.
At the White House, scoops are doled out, not uncovered. The day of a typical White House correspondent consists, literally, of waiting to be told things. Legitimate security concerns and a tightly scripted political world keep the presidential press corps physically corralled and informationally hostage.
Of course, someone has to keep an eye on the presidency. What's wrong with the White House beat is that it's considered prestigious, as though the address at which the reporters work makes their work special. I say this as someone who goes to the White House regularly and gets a thrill out of it.
But putting a horde of reporters at the site where the big decisions about the country's future are made is no guarantee of enhanced coverage. Instead of heaping more telegenic reporters into a single White House beat, break up the work among the corps of plugged-in journalists. When the president speaks out on AIG, let financial and labor reporters truth-squad him. When North Korea launches a missile, let defense and Asia specialists assess the White House reaction. Let the beleaguered journalism business prove its worth by providing something you can't get by watching the White House's YouTube channel.
And leave Bo to me.
- Ana Marie Cox is founding editor of the political blog Wonkette and is a correspondent for GQ. She can also be seen on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."