Don't Mess With The Media

Brit Hume demanded to know. No, not about the administration's flip-flops on Bosnia or the slow progress of Hillary Clinton's health-care reform plan. At a White House briefing last week, the ABC newsman wanted to know why the press had been served cold food-a mere croissant, yogurt and fruit-on a flight to New Hampshire aboard a White House charter. Where were those hot cakes and ham omelets, the kind of breakfast served on the press plane before the Clintons purged the White House travel office? Another reporter groused that even the champagne on the flight back had been cheap--domestic, presumably. White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos bravely stuck to his story: the reporters were getting the same standard of service they always enjoyed aboard White House charters. The press wasn't buying. "Earth to George!" Hume hooted out.

It's the revenge of the White House press corps. One day last week there were 169 questions about Travelgate-far more than there were about the prospects for the president's $246 billion tax bill up on Capitol Hill. Relations are rarely warm between the press and the White House staff. Carter press secretary Jody Powell, who used to refer to reporters as "vultures," remarked that by the time he arrived at work at 7 a.m., "I could hear their wings flapping against my door." But the White House press room has never been as relentlessly petty and mean as it is today. It's hard to know who deserves more blame-the reporters or their handlers-but the impact on Clinton is clear: he gets even worse press than he deserves.

Clinton had originally hoped to bypass the Washington press corps. Ever since the establishment press crawled into the gutter on the Gennifer Flowers story during the 1992 campaign, Clinton has had a low opinion of the media, even though some leading reporters were reputedly biased in his favor. As president, he wanted to go directly to the people, with the kind of "town meetings" and talk shows he had successfully used during the campaign. And at first, the president had some luck with this strategy, swatting at softballs tossed by local TV anchorpersons while refusing to grant an interview to White House "regulars." But Clinton's press staff made the mistake of not only ignoring White House reporters but actively disdaining them. Communications director Stephanopoulos seemed particularly contemptuous. Stephanopoulos has little time for swapping old war stories with reporters. Unlike his predecessor as chief presence, Marlin Fitzwater, he is not a schmoozer; he is all logic and tight-lipped control. The rest of the White House was not much friendlier. For many of the 1,800 accredited White House reporters, phone calls went unreturned; the passageway from the press room back to the staff offices was closed off. No surprise, then, that when Clinton began to stumble this spring, the White House press corps was positively gleeful.

White House staffers are not quite sure what to do about Clinton's poor press. They briefly considered humor. When The Washington Post reported that the White House had requested a local anchorwoman in New Hampshire to apply the president's makeup before an interview, Stephanopoulos and Co. thought up a little stunt to defuse the story. How about tossing Brit Hume a makeup kit during the morning briefing? Not funny enough, they decided. Maybe the press just needs a little courting, suggested political adviser Paul Begala. But other advisers just shot back at their tormenters. Noting that reporters got plenty of free favors from the travel-office employees whose ouster they were so fervently protesting, First Friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason declared to NEWSWEEK, "It's like letting defense contractors cover the Pentagon's $600 toilet-seat scandal. Why don't they turn the bright lights on themselves and ask the tough questions about cronyism?"

Ornery reporters:White House aides are floating various names to come to the rescue of the press operation. Among them are Begala, who is more reporter-friendly than Stephanopoulos, and former Carter State Department spokesman Hodding Carter. But whoever tries to win over the White House press will find the task thankless and usually fruitless. True, there are the masterstrokers of legend, like James Baker, who as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff could make the orneriest reporters purr with scraps of inside dope. But nothing will save a president when things start going badly. George Bush befriended many White House reporters, but they turned on him when his administration fell into lassitude. Covering the White House, for all its superficial glamour, can be a lousy job: reporters are held captive inside a grungy, overcrowded room and fed handouts and daily briefings. The reporters may gripe and vent, but they're not about to go away. In the end, Clinton will probably just have to learn to put up with them.

Based on how things have been going, is Clinton ruining his chances to be a successful president?

31% Agree 56% Too early to tell NEWSWEEK Poll, May 26-27, 1993