It's not a new complaint: The daily briefings are little more than contentless political Kabuki. They exist not to enlighten or inform, but to massage the daily flow of news and provide the White House press corps with a platform from which they can appear to be vigilant and aggressive in holding power to account.
None of it is real. It's a fraudulent exercise in political and journalistic role-playing with reporters hurling questions designed not to get information, but to generate buzz or start a pissing match, and press secretaries—the Republican ones and the Democratic ones—stonewalling, patronizing, lying, or all three.
Obama said in his inaugural address that he intended to ignore the "petty grievances" of our politics and urged Americans to "put away childish things." There is no political practice more petty and childish than the daily briefing.
The reporters are irked at being herded around like animals and relying on the people they are supposed to be challenging for morsels of information—as we've pointed out before, the White House itself gets access to pool reports before they're emailed out to reporters on the beat—so they're desperate to pierce the veil and come up with something real to write about. But they can't. So they take out their (understandable!) frustrations by generating false controversies and scouring each utterance from the press secretary for some sort of "nuance" or "shift in emphasis" that they can turn into a shitstorm. They get one chance a day for a Drudge link or a Politico mention, so they tailor their questions for low-calorie theatrics.
This clip of an unctuous Jake Tapper attempting to wring some sort of "heat" out of a question for Gibbs about access to ethics documents perfectly captures the dynamic at play: Tapper, seeming bored and irritable, asks about access to the disclosure forms of White House nominees and appointees, citing Obama's transparency pledge. Gibbs says he will look into it. Then Tapper senses an opening for TV-friendly bombast and acts like an asshole:
Note that the exchange has nothing to do with the Obama White House's actual behavior with regard to transparency—Gibbs wasn't saying no, he simply did not know whether the White House was releasing the information at issue. It's about the way Gibbs answered Tapper's question, which Tapper saw as a chance to turn into a showdown so he could feel like he was standing up to the man. And the exchange got tons of play online, so Tapper was rewarded for this stupidity.
Gibbs's performance so far has been uneven. He used the briefings to expertly stoke the Rush Limbaugh story to the White House's advantage, but he overstepped in responding to Dick Cheney's CNN interview last weekend. But no matter how well or poorly he performs, it's still just a performance, and everything he says from the briefing room podium simply feeds the daily news-cycle nonsense that Obama rose above so expertly in the campaign. Now that they have to go out and answer questions every day, they're getting stuck in the weeds.
Of course they should have to answer questions. They should just do it in a way that's conducive to rational thought and actual policy, and helps drain the swamp of stupid one-day stories like Gibbs's sparring with Rick Santelli. Which is why Obama should ditch the briefings and conduct a weekly, one-hour press conference instead, the way presidents used to do. He is his own best spokesman, and consistent grillings of the actual president by reporters would more than offset the loss of daily confrontations with the guy the president pays to shill for him. It's easier to manipulate a press corps when you can send a flunky out to entertain them every afternoon. Just imagine if George Bush had faced the press every Friday for an hour instead of throwing Dana Perino to the wolves.
And reporters could still talk to Gibbs every day. In private, where they wouldn't feel so compelled to act like jackasses. Probably.