White House Briefings -- Where's the News?

Debra J. Saunders

7/30/2013 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

A former Obama White House press aide is calling for an end to the White House's daily press briefings. "The daily briefing has become a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff, and a source of added friction between the two camps," Reid Cherlin wrote in New Republic. "It's time to do the humane, obvious thing and get rid of it altogether."

Amen to that.

My complaints about the briefings are different from Cherlin's. I don't think there's enough friction between the camps. As I watched Monday's briefing on streaming video, I spied a number of journalists looking at or typing on their phones. The press corps and White House spokesman seem like an old married couple; one knows what the other is going to say before the other says it.

The press corps doesn't come off well in many exchanges. President Barack Obama met for lunch with Hillary Clinton. America wants to know: What was on the menu? Spokesman Josh Earnest was ready with an answer: grilled chicken, pasta jambalaya and salad.

There's this awful trend in journalism that, in the rush not to be late, produces stories that preview what is going to happen. Then when, say, a speech is over, it's already old news, so no one covers it.

So at the briefings, reporters ask: What will the president say?

Then there's the inevitable answer: "I don't want to get ahead of the president's speech tomorrow."

Your average American would want to know why an administration does what it does, yet your average journalist wants to know when. In its first interview with the president since 2010, The New York Times asked the president when he would announce his decision on the Keystone pipeline and when he would name a successor to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

When reporters stray from the usual routine, it doesn't do much good. On Monday, CBS News correspondent Major Garrett tried to get a yes or no answer as to whether the administration thinks the Egyptian military is responsible for the violence that has left so many dead.

Garrett's tactic enabled Earnest to engage in a typical press secretary dodge -- referring to other officials' cryptic statements. Another handy tool: telling reporters to talk to another press secretary in a different department.

It cannot be good for reporters to just sit there as press secretaries spin and drill the same old talking points without saying anything revealing. As Cherlin wrote, if there were a Hippocratic oath for press secretaries at daily briefings, it would begin: "First, make no news."

No problem there; the beat reporters know the rules, including what not to ask. After George Zimmerman and his family received death threats, Gabe Finger, a high-school intern at The Daily Caller, asked press secretary Jay Carney whether the president planned on taking any action to protect the Zimmermans or they were "on their own."

Carney answered that he was not aware of any threats -- another favorite dodge in this White House. Then he hit the intern for making a "ridiculous statement." You see, Finger asked a question that a conservative might ask. And to this White House, with this press corps, that is utterly ridiculous.