By Chris Adams
Anita Kumar showed up to cover the White House beat, seeing herself as an adept source reporter – somebody who could schmooze and cajole and carefully work information out of reluctant-but-knowledgeable insiders.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the normal tactics don’t always work.
“It was so hard. Sourcing is not something that’s really easy there,” said Kumar, who covers the White House for the McClatchy Washington Bureau. “The White House – and I think this is the case for all White Houses – they just don’t want to provide information. … My lesson was to just go outside the White House.”
Like any enterprising beat reporter, Kumar still tries the standard techniques, such as setting up meetings and coffees and drinks with potential sources. But to really work the beat, she’s needed to develop sources in Congress, interest groups, lobbying firms, federal agencies and others around Washington. If the White House wasn’t going to talk, Kumar would find her information elsewhere.
She also found it to be a dizzyingly busy beat.
“A million skills are important with the White House, because you have to do so many different things,” she said. That includes filing pool reports, writing blogs and stories, interviewing sources – much of it while you’re in the back of a van that’s trailing the president’s motorcade.
The challenges in covering such a prestigious and high-profile beat were apparent in a panel discussion with NPF Paul Miller fellows that included three White House reporters: Kumar, Gardiner Harris of The New York Times and Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post.
Kumar – herself a former Paul Miller fellow who has also worked for the St. Petersburg Times (now called the Tampa Bay Times) and The Washington Post – talked about her strategies for getting information outside the White House itself. And she talked about efforts to find themes and trends in the blizzard of daily White House news; one such effort resulted in a look at how President Barack Obama’s “year of action” contained quite a bit of creative counting and minor moves that underscored how little really got done.
Jaffe described one of his best information-gathering strategies: reviewing Obama’s speeches and other writings, since they gave a good insight into the president’s mindset. For one story, about a pivotal speech in Selma, Alabama, Jaffe gained access to the president’s speechwriter and saw the drafts of the speech-in-progress – including Obama’s edit marks.
Because the White House is such a pivotal source of information for so many beats, Harris described how he was able to use his briefing room seat to assist his colleagues elsewhere in the Times’ empire. Reporters working stories on their beats that needed White House comment could forward questions to Harris, who would pose them to the president’s spokesman.
Harris also described the pool system, in which reporters from major news organizations take turns tracking the president in order to provide reports for a larger group of journalists who can’t all be in the same place at the same time.
The pool work is often tedious – lots of waiting around – but is seen as a vital component of providing a public accounting of what the president does day-to-day. Harris talked about some recent pool reports of his that created a stir for their rather cheeky take on something that’s traditionally serious and sober. (Declared one political writer: “Best. POTUS pool reports. EVER.”)
In addition to the reporters, Martha Joynt Kumar, an emeritus professor of political science at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project, described how interactions between the White House and the press have changed over time.
Her research has carefully documented the different ways presidential administrations reach the public – whether through nighttime press conferences, regular White House press conferences, Q&A sessions or interviews.
Through the third quarter of 2016, President Barack Obama held 35 solo press conferences in the White House, slightly less than the 39 President Ronald Reagan had. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had more – but that doesn’t mean that Presidents Obama and Reagan were less accessible.
Her recent study showed that Reagan held 30 prime time news conferences – often the most-high profile venue, and far more than his successors. Obama, by contrast, took part in more than 1,000 interviews – far more than any of his predecessors back to Reagan.
In all, Obama had more overall “interchanges” with reporters than Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and almost as many as Clinton (Obama: 1,333; Clinton: 1,506).
Her work tracked press conferences back to 1913 and the administration of President Woodrow Wilson.