How I ruined the White House press briefing - and what we can do to fix it

Robert Gibbs is due credit. He has opened the environment for communications at the White House and made the business of the Presidency more transparent.

Robert Gibbs is due credit. He has opened the environment for communications at the White House and made the business of the Presidency more transparent. But tell him – from the zeal of the converted – that he should go forth and spin no more.

I vividly recall a day at the White House when Brit Hume, then senior ABC correspondent, told me I was “the most political person” he'd ever seen at the podium. He was right, but my successors have become more political because the job of briefing the White House press corps has descended into political pugilism. That's not what Americans need.

The daily White House press briefing is becoming a farce mainly because it is televised. This is my bad. I let cameras carry the briefing live in 1995. Reporters now posture, the press secretary must stand ground and spin, and no one gets much out of it. But I have some suggestions to help:

Create a new daily briefing. One person answering questions for the entire government doesn't make sense. A press secretary should orchestrate a government-wide briefing with experts from all departments available online and on camera to answer questions.

Cancel the live coverage of all briefings. Press briefings are only raw ingredients of news stories, not “the news.” Good reporters will take information they get and test it before filing a story. The White House briefing – like the State Department daily briefing today – should be “embargoed until complete.” If real news breaks, the senior correspondent present can always request a break to file.

Eliminate “backgrounders.” People need to know the identity of the information source. Every briefing – when logistically and diplomatically possible – should be on the record. But in turn, the press should respect the White House response and try and give on-record sources preference over anonymous know-it-alls.

Consider reality TV at the White House. Was West Wing popular? Why not open internal meetings to coverage? Americans would be fascinated to see good, hardworking people struggling to get it right. People are skeptical about policymaking. Maybe they won't be offended if they see how the policy sausage really gets made.

These changes cannot be made overnight. But we need to rethink the public information function inside government. We all have a lot riding on the outcome.

Mike McCurry, a consultant at Public Strategies Washington, was press secretary to President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1998.


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