Reporters from roughly 30 television networks, newspapers, magazines, and web sites celebrated the Fourth of July with Barack Obama at the White House last weekend. Why didn't you know that? Because they were sworn to secrecy.
We reported yesterday that Politico's Mike Allen was spotted milling about as a guest at the White House's "backyard bash" by the pool reporter, who was allowed into the event for 40 minutes and kept in a pen before being ushered out. When Allen quoted from the pool report in his Playbook column the next day, he deleted a reference to his own name and didn't bother to tell his readers that he was actually at the party.
Well, he wasn't alone. Gawker has learned that the White House gave tickets to virtually every major news organization that covers the president—the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, ABC News, NBC News, CNN, CBS News, and so on, about 30 in all. The reporters were invited to attend on the following condition:
"You are being invited to attend this event as a guest. Blogging, Twittering or otherwise reporting on this event is not permitted. If you feel that you cannot agree to abide by these ground rules, please don't claim a ticket."
That's right: Much of the White House press corps spent the Fourth schmoozing with White House staffers, catching performances by the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Fallon, and watching the fireworks from the most exclusive vantage point in the D.C. metro area, all off the record—not to mention off-the-Facebook and off-the-Twitter. These are the same people who just a week ago were whining in the press briefing about Obama's malicious and dastardly attempts to "control the press." (Well, not the self-same people—we're not sure if Chip Reid and Helen Thomas, the primary antagonists in that exchange, were in attendance.)
There is a cosmic irony at work here: The party was "closed press." (Ha!) It was covered, under onerous restrictions, by a pool reporter—the Baltimore Sun's Paul West. West was ushered in by White House staffers for a mere 40 minutes, so he could record the president's remarks. He was kept in a pen so that he wouldn't run amok and interview someone. He shouted questions at Obama as he worked the rope line, which the president ignored. Then he was taken away. West wrote up his blindered account of the party and then e-mailed it to the White House press corps, many of whom were actually at the party, outside of the pen, hanging out with all the other guests. And then, because they had temporarily signed away the right to do their jobs in exchange for facetime with staffers, a few cold Stoudt's American Pale Ales, and some corn on the cob, their news organizations picked up that pool report and used it to tell their readers what happened at the party. This is how the press covers the White House.
The party was designated "closed press" because it was originally going to actually be closed to the press. But on Thursday of last week, a batch of last-minute tickets opened up, and White House staffers decided it would be nice to invite the press corps. They distributed them to the news organizations, who then decided who to give them to. (We are reliably told it was mostly White House correspondents who snapped them up.) But instead of just opening up the event to coverage, which would have meant spoiling a nice backyard bash with network cameras, radio correspondents, international press, and the vast machinery of live electronic media, the White House decided that it would be more fair to the news organizations who weren't invited if they just kept it off the record. That way, the thinking went, no one's getting special access. As absurd as that sounds when you're talking about inviting a select group of reporters to a party with the president, it kind of makes sense if you have to deal with a host of news outlets jockeying for access. If it's all off the record, a small regional paper can't complain that not being invited seriously hurts their coverage.
What doesn't make sense, at all, is why a group of reporters who have recently begun clinging to the notion that they are independent of Washington's clubby morass of back-scratching self-congratulation would agree to attend an off-the-record party at the White House while one of their own is walled off in a pen like some forlorn scapegoat, doing the job they're supposed to be doing.