How to Survive the White House Press Corps

January 24, 1993|By FRANK A. DeFILIPPO

George Stephanopolous, the Clinton administration's human trumpet, is considered a savvy old pro at the tenderfoot age of 31. He earned a degree at Oxford and got his political education in the last two Democratic presidential campaigns and in the office of House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

And now the new kid on the block is about to get another kind of an education. The boyish Mr. Stephanopolous is about to learn that there's a world of difference between the planeload of reporters who cover campaigns and the 8,000 or so reporters who are accredited in the nation's capital and to the White House itself.

The difference is more than size. It's a mindset. In the boozy comradery of campaign planes and the 18-hour days of slogging, dog-tired, through wheatfields and mudflats, there's a bonding of sorts that more than makes up for the competitive edge of on-the-road reporting.

But in Washington, it's journalism with a difference. High-level reporting is more of a social romp among the literary tea cups -- a mannerly trade of well-dropped leaks, private briefings, power breakfasts and invitations to the proper salons and White House dinners.

And the ubiquitous Mr. Stephanopolous, as White House spokesman, will do well to discern the difference quickly. It's one thing to issue campaign statements. It's another to define the presidential message and devise the White House communications strategy that speaks not only to reporters but to the nation.

Moreover, from the White House Mr. Stephanopolous will have to coordinate and control the sprawling communications network of agency and department press secretaries who are scattered across Washington and the world.

By all accounts, though, Mr. Stephanopolous has so far turned in a boffo performance as a quick-sketch, improvisational campaign communications director. Mr. Stephanopolous was not only the campaign's lead spokesman. He was fax-fast with response, every-ready with a satellite feed of a celebrity spokesman and as available as the nearest cellular phone. What's more, he had regular access to Mr. Clinton.

But the daily press briefings on foreign and domestic policy in the White House fish-bowl are tricky affairs that have claimed more than one loose-lipped or ill-prepared press secretary. And one shortcoming on his resume is that Mr. Stephanopolous has no background or experience as a working journalist. The deal is that Mr. Stephanopolous is part of the honeymoon package: How long it lasts determines how long he survives the firing line.

Most press secretaries are very much reflections of their bosses in style, manner and the delivery of information. Mr. Stephanopolous' boss is a casual, outgoing, consensus builder who demonstrated his resilience by surviving the lacerations of the press during a brutal primary campaign.

But since the election, Bill Clinton is beginning to reveal his tender side over the peeping-Tom press: He complained about reporters intruding into his golf game, real news on a dull day.

After an election, many major new organizations shifttheir campaign reporters over the White House beat, thetheory being that the campaign reporters know the newpresident's every nuance of style and substance after a year ofclose-focus exposure.

So, Mr. Stephanopolous and many of the reporterswho'll be covering the White House will already have testedeach other. And many reporters on the White House beat could benearly double Mr. Stephanopolous in both age and experience.

There are no iron laws governing dealings with the press, only a few general principles ofengagement:

pTC 1. A press secretary must establish credibility before hecan lie.

The press secretary is the vital link between thepresident and the press, and some say the public. He servesthree masters -- the president, the press and his ownconscience. Reporters rely on the press secretary for their owncredulity, and if they go astray it can often be the press secretary's fault for misleading them. It's better to say "I don't know, but I'll find out" than to lie. But too often, inthe rarified air of government, senior staffers are reluctant appear uninformed, or worse, outside the inner circle. The press secretary must take reporters into his confidence before he can begin to use them for his own purpose.

2. An idle reporter is a dangerous reporter.

Editors demand stories and prod reporters to get them. Proper care and feeding is the antidote to aggressive reporting. The busier the press secretary keeps reporters chasing official stories and pronouncements, the less likely that are to go digging on their own and trip over a nugget that might embarass the president.

3. Never give out information unless you know how it's going to be used.

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