Pressroom of Babel
A veteran White House press secretary thinks it is time to blow up the 35-year-old model of having one overexposed spokesperson be ground zero for every question.
The source: “Memorandum to the President-Elect” by Mike McCurry, in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Dec. 2008.
Richard M. Nixon was president when the White House Press Office was last revamped, and it is now suffering from hardening of the arteries. More Americans are interested in politics than ever, but an office that had specialized in communicating the president’s daily message to major newspapers, magazines, and television networks must now deal with cable, websites, YouTube, comedy shows, and those 21st-century pamphleteers, the bloggers. The White House press secretary needs a makeover, writes Mike McCurry, who held the job from 1995 to 1998 under President Bill Clinton. “But one person cannot adequately speak on behalf of the institutional presidency.”
Blow up the 35-year-old model of having one overexposed spokesperson be ground zero for every question, he says. Put articulate representatives from various parts of the government, from the new technology czar to the national security adviser, on camera to explain their own initiatives, straight. The recent press secretary arguably considered the best of the lot—Marlin Fitzwater, who held the job under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush—honed his skills as an apolitical information officer in the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Treasury Department before moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Forget the single “line of the day,” McCurry urges. It should give way to multiple information streams of specialized news delivered clearly and factually. Move parts of the White House press operation into regional and local offices, even overseas. Hold presidential news conferences online, or in front of student newspaper editors, or even members of Congress. To prevent a disaggregated communications operation from sending out mixed messages, the presi-dent himself should use his position as communicator in chief to pull together themes and explain ideas as he attempts to bring the political change he promised.
Offer multiple televised messages to minimize the importance of a daily briefing that has become a “silly theater of the absurd with all sides posturing for the cameras and the editors and employers watching.” Consider filming cabinet meetings or even some National Security Council sessions. “The more everything at the White House is televised, the less that any one thing becomes a focus for disproportionate coverage,” he says. The more Americans see of serious policymaking, the greater their respect for it will be. Trust the generation facile in Facebook and ubiquitous on YouTube, McCurry counsels, and run a spin-free exercise devoted to getting the public the information it needs.