Taking it to people means shutting door on the press


February 07, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Rarely does a TV show get canceled at the height of its popularity. But that's what happened last week when the White House pulled the plug on its daily press briefings.

"We were logging 50 calls a day, and most people were asking, 'When is it coming on?' and, 'How come it's not on yet?' " said a spokeswoman for CNN, which had been carrying the broadcasts live.

Virtually every working day, the White House spokesman enters the White House press room and stands behind a lectern to give reporters the president's version of reality.

George Stephanopoulos is the current spokesman, and if you are still trying to figure out who is who in the Clinton administration, Stephanopoulos is the one who looks like the young man who puts the groceries in your car at the supermarket.

Though he is 31, Stephanopoulos has a hard time getting a drink without showing some ID.

Stephanopoulos handled the press briefings in Little Rock, Ark., and did a good job. (Though his habit of pointing to reporters by using his entire right hand held perpendicular to the floor always struck me as a little too Kennedyesque. I feel you should be old enough to remember John Kennedy before you start acting like him.)

So when the Clinton team hit Washington, it was decided that Stephanopoulos would continue his act on live TV.

True, Clinton's first two weeks in office were rocky ones. There were Zoe Baird, broken promises over a middle-class tax cut, and the ban on gays in the military, to name a few bumps in the road.

And, true, the White House press corps could be counted on to try to show Stephanopoulos he now was going to have to hit major-league pitching.

But neither of these things overly displeased those in the Clinton administration. They remembered what happened in the first weeks of Desert Shield, when Pentagon briefings were broadcast live to millions of interested Americans:

CNN received 37,000 calls from viewers, most of them negative. One of the constant themes, said a CNN vice president, was the nature and quality of the questions being asked by reporters.

And the Clinton administration had every reason to expect the same thing would happen at the White House briefings:

Reporters would be shown to the American people as overly aggressive buffoons.

But it didn't quite turn out that way. The press threw some high, hard ones at Stephanopoulos, and he did OK. Not great, not awful. (He wasn't very good at defending Zoe Baird, but how do you defend Zoe Baird?)

And the White House press corps, fairly adept at performing before a national TV audience, failed to humiliate itself.

So after eight days, the White House ended the broadcasts, saying they were too "combative."

Translation: We didn't win the war in public. So let's continue it in private.

Terry Michael, director of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, considers this sound politics.

"Broadcasting the briefings live was not helping the administration control the message," he told me. "The administration was letting the media pick the subject. That is the opposite of good political communication."

So when the TV lights were snapped off in White House press room, it should have come as no surprise.

Nor should it be surprising that Clinton is limiting reporters' access or that he intends to hold fewer press conferences than George Bush or that he even may remove reporters from the White House and stick them in a nearby office building.

Just in case anybody missed it, Bill Clinton feared and loathed the press throughout his campaign and considered it the biggest barrier to his election.

From his point of view, the Gennifer Flowers story, the draft story, the "I-didn't-inhale" story and all the other Slick Willie stories were the creation of rabid and irresponsible reporters.

In fact, the only person in the White House who dislikes and distrusts the press more than Bill Clinton is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Things could change in the next four years, but I wouldn't count on it.

As for now, the Clintons intend to communicate with the American people in spite of the press, not through it.

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