The Washington Post ran a story earlier this week suggesting rather strongly that ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who aggressively takes White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to task on a daily basis, is wasting everybody’s time with a self-serving made-for-TV performance.
Let’s be clear. Karl is among only a handful of reporters – like, maybe three – who are willing to seriously go toe-to-toe with Carney and hold the White House accountable for its actions and its spin. Other than the queries from Karl, Ed Henry of Fox News, and Major Garrett of CBS, the questions range from occasionally strong demands for explanations to, more usually, bread buttering inquiries about how the president feels about this or that or what’s on the plate for tomorrow’s upcoming event.
Tough questions at a televised White House briefing are a service to the republic. They allow viewers to see the White House try to explain – or avoid explaining – controversial policies. When the explanation is nonsense, it’s there for all to witness. What’s more, the inquisitions chasten the White House by forcing officials to consider that they will have to account publicly for their actions.
And yes, tough questioning does sometimes elicit news. I don’t see where the softballs generate many headlines.
Carney faces the least assertive questioning of any press secretary I’ve seen in 16 years covering the White House.
Post reporter Paul Farhi, who wrote the piece, suggests that Karl is playing for the cameras, trying to advance his career by impressing his bosses, and engaging in a self indulgent exercise that fails to elicit news and somehow even harms to the news gathering process.
Farhi lets Karl defend himself, but the the slant of the piece is pretty clear.
“Some of Karl’s fellow press-room denizens view the give-and-take skeptically,” writes Farhi. He lets one jealous, frightened little White House reporter snipe at Karl anonymously. The reporter, no doubt one who fails to muster the courage or energy to demand truth from power, whines, “How much of [this] is aimed at breaking news by getting Carney to crack under pressure, and how much of it is pure theater aimed at ratings, impressing bosses or otherwise gaining attention?”
Even National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who ironically was one of the most impressive and unbiased cross examiners in the briefing room during the Bush years, chimes in with skepticism.
Fournier, Fahri writes, “traces the decline of the briefings to 1995,” when then-White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry put them on TV in full.
“It made it more of a show and less of a place to get and give information,” Fournier said.
Fournier says the briefings “have become ‘a crutch’ for reporters — a substitute for more energetic and probing reporting.”
That last part can be true. Reporters can just do a take from the briefing and go home. And Karl, BTW, surely has one eye on his career as he blasts away at Carney. But none of that diminishes the value or courageousness of his work or the need for contentiousness in the briefing room.
And Karl’s sometimes febrile questioning of Carney suggests much more than rank opportunism is at play.
Besides, he’s taking risks too. I remember one of Karl’s predecessors on the beat at ABC asked then-President Bill Clinton a question, prefacing it with “People are saying,” or something to that effect. Clinton demanded, Who is saying? The reporter didn’t have an answer. A couple of weeks later, he was off the beat.
The briefings began their ascent, not their decline, in 1995, when TV helped foster a more confrontational attitude.
This article by the Post and the anonymous snickering picked up by Fahri – and no doubt directed suck-up style by the same reporters toward Carney as well – will provide the White House some cover when it moves, as I expect it to do, to roll back or even cancel the televised briefings.
And that will be a tragedy not only for democracy and the press, but for a White House that should value checks on its own hubris.
Photos by Keith Koffler