The Song of the White House Spokesperson

If you asked me who was the most appalling evader/distracter/dissembler among White House spokespeople over the time I've been politically aware, I'd have to say Ari Fleischer, who served in that position for the first couple of years of George W. Bush's administration. I remember often shouting at Fleischer on the TV as he spun some inverted version of the truth to the press, inventing absurd new terms (remember "homicide bombing"?), telling Americans to "watch what they say," and most of all, just shamelessly denying what everyone knew to be true (Jonathan Chait penned the definitive takedown of Fleischer). On the other end of the spectrum I'd have to put Mike McCurry, who did the job under Bill Clinton, including the period covering the impeachment scandal. McCurry wasn't any more forthcoming than anybody else who has held that job, but he had an easy, straightforward manner that seemed to make the interaction between himself and the reporters more of an honest negotiation over what information they could get, and less some kind of game whereby the spokesperson tries to deceive and the reporters try to catch him/her at it.

When current White House spokesperson Jay Carney took the job, he seemed like the perfect person for it. An experienced reporter himself, Carney knew the press corps as a former colleague, and in his frequent television appearances while at Time magazine he came off as articulate, informed, and thoughtful. But Carney has been less than a smashing success. He doesn't have the blatant contempt for reporters that Fleischer had, and the times he's been caught saying something untrue have actually been relatively few in number. The problem isn't so much what he says, but rather that he refuses to say much of anything. In fact, he's got a dozen different ways to say that he won't answer your question. Or actually, as it turns out, a baker's dozen. Yahoo News did the yeoman's work of analyzing all of Carney's briefings, and here's what they came up with:

Jay Carney doesn't have an answer for that. He hasn't discussed that subject with the president. He will refer you to the Department of [insert agency here]. He refuses to speculate on that. He'll have to get back to you.

But he appreciates the question.

A Yahoo News analysis of the 444 briefings that Carney has held since becoming White House press secretary has identified 13 distinct strains in the way he dodges a reporter's question. Since Carney held his first daily briefing with reporters in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room on Feb. 16, 2011, for example, he's used some variation of "I don’t have the answer" more than 1,900 times. In 1,383 cases he referred a question to someone else. But will he at least speculate on hypotheticals? No. In fact, he has refused to do so 525 times.

I'm sure this isn't what Carney envisioned for himself when he took the position, but the job almost necessitates this kind of evasion. And I guess refusing to answer is better than just lying. But he's there to get the administration's preferred spin out, and the reporters see it as their job to strip away that spin. So when they ask a question that doesn't lend itself well to the spin, he just refers them to another department (knowing in most cases they won't bother to follow up, particularly since they probably won't get the answer they're looking for there either), promises to get back to them, or says he doesn't know (which he may well not). It's kind of like the president is the quarterback, the reporters are the defensive line, and Carney is on the offensive line. They use their questions to try to fake their way around him, and he tries to react quickly to keep them from flattening the QB.

If this is how it's going to go, do we even need these gatherings? They serve the purpose of giving the reporters something—a quote they can run in their story, or a sound bite they can use in their TV report—even if it's completely uninformative. But what is the public really gaining? If it's such a ridiculous game that nobody ever wins, couldn't there be some alternative? I don't know what it might be, though. Maybe have the briefings but make them all on background, so they can be a little more candid, and serve as a guide that the journalists could use to inform some further reporting. But that probably wouldn't work, since the spokesperson would be unlikely to be any more open even if he's off the record.

If you're a reporter on Capitol Hill, it's much easier to find someone to tell you what's really going on. There are two competing teams, and within each team there are hundreds of members and thousands of staffers all trying to advance their own interests, often through the press. The White House may be more or less fractious at various times, but it's still basically one team that usually sees the press as an adversary.

So the White House press corps lives in a gilded cage, where they're right at the center of power, but the staff doesn't want to talk to them and they can't do much but sit around waiting to be fed the news. They inevitably grow frustrated and hostile, the spokesperson gets more defensive, and the cycle continues.

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