A Half-Century on the Most Prestigious Beat in Journalism: The White House Then and Now

DC Baker

In mid-January students from the Duke Public Policy in D.C. Program sat down with Peter Baker and Frank Swoboda. Baker is the New York Times Chief White House correspondent; Frank Swoboda was at the Washington bureaus of United Press International, BusinessWeek and the Baltimore Sun from 1966 to 1978, where he developed a close working relationship with President Johnson (pictured). Baker’s latest book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” is available on Amazon


By Maxime Fischer-Zernin.

November 22, 1963. Flash. President Dead. United Press International had broken the news via Teletype bulletin.

Just over a half-century ago, time stood still across the nation as Americans of all ages watched and listened as Walter Cronkite delivered the news they all feared. “We just have a report from our correspondent, Dan Rather, in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead.” From one moment to the next an unsuspecting Lyndon B. Johnson became the President of the United States.

That day Frank Swoboda was in his second year in Newark with United Press International (UPI), a close rival to the Associated Press. Little did he know that within 3 years he would be face-to-face with President Johnson as part of the White House Press Corps.

Frank Swoboda’s path to the heart of American politics began, of all places, in Canada. Committed to a career in journalism, Frank dropped out of the Virginia Military Institute and took the only newspaper beat he could find – a $50 a week gig with the Kingston Whig Standard in Ontario. After a short stint in New Jersey at what Frank called “the worst paper ever,” he was assigned to the D.C. Bureau in 1966, where he earned the White House beat for UPI. The legendary Helen Thomas, who overcame national gender prejudice and broke the glass ceiling of White House reporting, became his partner – one of the most impressive partners he’d ever had: “She was nuts. But a good reporter.”

The White House beat, he recalls, was “perhaps the most prestigious beat in journalism, but the most boring.” But for the first time since dropping out of VMI almost a decade earlier, his father finally stopped asking him when he’d get a “real job.”

Peter Baker was born the following year, just across the Potomac in Falls Church, Va. Peter, a life-long lover of Washington and its players, would take a more conventional route to the White House. He began reporting in Virginia, before receiving, in 1996, the “prestigious… but boring gig,” White House Correspondent for the Washington Post. He is still at the White House today, although representing an equally impressive publication, the New York Times.

**

The White House was “very different in ’67,” Frank admits. There were less than 30 full-time correspondents, of which the two wire services – UPI and AP – accounted for six. Correspondents saw LBJ daily, sometimes being invited to the residence, or conducting the President’s now infamous interviews from his throne (and no, I don’t mean the Oval Office) Don’t worry, Frank adds, “he closed the stall.” When Frank didn’t want to take up the President’s invitation for toilet talk, he still had many more channels in the White House.

Frank recalls calling officials including the National Security Advisor for comment, unimaginable in today’s closed White Houses. This kind of access was only possible in an era Frank described as “a different world. We didn’t have all of the electronic transmissions,” and so officials were more at ease. “You could call anywhere in the white house and they would talk to you.”  After an interview or press conference, the correspondents headed to the phones in the pressroom. “[We would just] pickup the phone and say ‘get me dictation”.

Today, Peter explains, you can walk around Congress and find policymakers and staffers, but in the White House you can’t wander beyond the press office: “The serendipitous interactions that often create interesting stories” are gone.  Even spokespeople won’t go on record. “The Press guy at NSC hasn’t responded in a week, even though it’s his job!”

Peter finds that in a modern White House, “the best sources about the White House are sources outside the White House.” The lack of access makes the job “frustrating … but it’s a front row seat at history.”

Technology has changed our relationship with this daily history. Today, time never stops, everything is live tweeted, blogged, streamed online, and spread instantly through social media. Despite the ability for any average joe with a smartphone to be a citizen journalist, Peter maintains that the value of “old fashioned news,” like the New York Times is serious analysis.

Of course even Times reporters have had to adapt and use social media, but not by choice. “It’s a time suck that takes away from reporting, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” There are no editors to ensure quality, and of course there’s only so much quantity you can put into 140 characters.

And if the New York Times and its peer publications have found success in charging for online content, it is because their brands are built on value-added analysis, still sought by the public. For the New York Times company, protecting this brand has meant making tough decisions like selling the Boston Globe, their classical music station, and even the New York Times building, which they now lease – all so that no journalist has his work limited by funding issues.

Peter maintains that this “creative destruction” has been a necessary evil to protect the duty of the New York Times – a mission clearly on display during the Wikileaks publications. It is in moments like these that traditional journalism is of utmost importance to provide “reporting and editing.” The Times, along with its peer institutions across the world, sorted through the leaked documents and ended up publishing only a tiny fraction, providing context and insight on those pieces of information that truly mattered.

**

As a White House correspondent, Peter’s self-declared goals are to say what the President did, and more importantly, to add perspective through analysis. “People already know the news before they read the New York Times so we have to provide the next level, insight.”

To provide this perspective, Peter prepares by combing through 5 print papers every morning and scanning a dozen websites. Next of the agenda is following the President, wherever he may be. And where the president goes, the Press Secretary follows.

The press and the Press Secretary can be “like lions and Christians,” Peter explained, “and we’re the lions.” But it doesn’t always have to be that way. They’re “not supposed to be friends, [but] have a good, mutual understanding.” Jay Carney, Obama’s current Press Secretary, was the Time Magazine Washington bureau chief – the first news reporter to go from covering the White House to speaking for since the Ford administration – so he’s more conscious of the pressroom antics, which makes him a more challenging opponent for journalists.

In September, Peter and Carney chatted on Air Force One as they returned from President Obama’s trip to St. Petersburg, where he failed to gain much international support for his plan to attack Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. After landing, Carney saw the piece Peter had written about the summit, Carney’s tone was no longer friendly and he complained vociferously. The next day amends were made when, to the surprise of both Peter and Carney, their kids were teammates in a little league game.

Before Press Secretaries became the sole voice of the President, however, the Commander-in-Chief didn’t bother with a proxy to voice his displeasure. Frank recalls that if LBJ didn’t like what you did, he’d call you to his office and “chew you up.” He was “an intimidating 6’3”/6’4 and had long fingers that he would put right in your face… the Chris Christie of the White House; a great bully.”

So what changed? Why has the President gone from being an accessible source to a distant executive?

… because Television happened.

“Cameras warped the briefing into a show and not an information session,” Peter notes, “Because everything is live there is a lot more caution.”

Frank remembers when cameras first entered the pressroom during the Nixon years.  At first they were quite harmless, only taking stock footage. The only noticeable change was Helen, who got her hair done for every televised press conference.

Things took a turn for the worse when Nixon replaced the White House swimming pool with 2 floors for the briefing room and offices. The size of the television press corps mushroomed, and the media circus had begun.

Today, Peter says, questions asked at the briefing have a “mind numbing” quality –multiple reporters all ask the same questions even with no chance of eliciting a different, more candid answer. At this point, Peter admits, the press briefings are “probably not” valuable, “but we shouldn’t get rid of them.”

They have to be kept because it’s the only time Press Secretaries can be put on the record. It forces acknowledgment of the question, and forces an answer, where even a non-answer is an answer.

Peter reminisces of the “good days,” when Mike McCurry served as Clinton’s Press Secretary from 1994-98. He “conveyed useful information to reporters, and didn’t treat you like an idiot enemy… McCurry believed the Press Secretary had two masters, the President and the Press.” Why? Peter explains McCurry wasn’t a Clinton loyalist. He prioritized information over advocacy in his briefing.

McCurry is more typical of an LBJ-era Press Secretary. Frank recalls huddling into the Press Secretary’s small office, where he held his two daily briefings. You could tape record but no cameras were allowed. This made for less formal meetings, “more like standing around at a bar talking… [We] really got to sound out policy issues – not this big dance every day.”

“The White House was a much more informal place,” where reporters would interact with the President and officials in the hall. “You would see the shifts in [LBJ’s] mood… President’s today are in a cocoon.”

As Peter describes Obama and his administration, they “claim to be the most transparent, but are innovators in opaqueness.” They post records and logs on line, but are often reticent to talk to the press on the record. When this happens in such a systematic manner, “the information isn’t even useful anymore.” When chose to make an statement without being identified, many times the value of the statement is lost in the anonymity. The type of deep background once reserved for leakers like Deep Throat is not used in an organized way by administration officials.

Frank notes that during his tenure as White House correspondent the administration needed the press to get its message out. Today they can use other mediums and avoid the tough questions of the press. They can discuss politics instead of discussing policy. “Politics is boring,” Frank explains, “It’s like riding the same carousel again and again. Policy is what I liked… You just don’t have to dig deep in politics. 

Although information continues to democratize itself through social media and blogging, publications from the Washington Post, to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and beyond must maintain their comparative advantage – they provide insight that cuts through the noise. They work to get the story right, not first. And although consumers of news like shock headlines and sound bites, there remains an appetite for hard news and analysis. That is why quality print journalism will survive the next half-century and whatever technological changes it may bring.

Reflecting on the past and contemplating the future of the White House Correspondent, Frank had this to say: “Presidents come and presidents go… but we come with the House.”




There are no comments

Add yours