Like most ultra-important offices in Washington as well as most cable news networks, commenting on-the-record is frowned upon. Off-the-record is off-the-record and even using the phrase off-the-record is considered off-the-record if you know what I mean.
But this week a few Washington journalists exposed what happened when they approached the first lady Michelle Obama‘s press office for information. There’s an aspect of this that is quite impressive. They didn’t play the game. They didn’t worry about future access, undoubtedly a rarity in Washington among the Fourth Estate.
SiriusXM’s Julie Mason, who hosts “Press Pool,” told The Mirror a story that things definitely got heated when she dealt with the first lady’s press aides.
“When I did a story about the East Wing for Politico, before the piece even came out the first lady’s staff called me a bunch of derogatory names — irresponsible, unprofessional, shoddy, a rumor-monger and a liar,” said Mason. “They also demanded I identify my confidential sources as a condition for their commenting on the record (I refused, of course. Has that ever worked?) The story, which they had no quarrel with in the end, detailed the high-pressure atmosphere in the East Wing and the high rate of turnover on the first lady’s staff. Which their tactics pretty much illustrated. No hard feelings, though — I don’t know how anyone survives that tension.”
The first lady’s staff refused to comment for the lengthy story she wrote with then-Politico scribe Amie Parnes. Mason’s sourcing was “sources familiar with the East Wing,” and “a source familiar with the office,” and such. The closest she got to an actual spokesperson going on-the-record was Gordon Johndroe, a former spokesman to former first lady Laura Bush, Jonathan Block, a former deputy press secretary to Laura Bush and Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush.
So reporters shouldn’t get too discouraged. Perhaps when we are well into the next administration or beyond, a former spokesperson will have the nerve to open his or her mouth.
Asked if dealing with the East Wing of other administrations was as hard as this one, Mason said, “I dealt with the East Wing in the Bush administration. They were very guarded and she didn’t give much access. I believe the difference is the pressure being the first African-American first lady. There’s not a lot of room for error, and I think they all feel it. ”
Earlier this week, Dylan Byers, the media writer for Politico, detailed his dealings that day with Michelle Obama’s press office and just how difficult it was to get his question answered. “It’s absolutely terrible,” he wrote me by email. The information Byers sought involved a NYT report that no reporters would be accompanying the first lady on her trip to China. NYT‘s Nick Kristoff said the call was a bad one. Byers wanted to know why the decision was made in the first place.
“A spokesperson for the First Lady responded to my inquiry but declared the response ‘off the record,’ meaning I wasn’t allowed to use the information therein,” he wrote in a post. “When I told the spokesperson that I needed a response I could use, the spokesperson replied with another off-the-record statement regarding the First Lady’s trip. The spokesperson then wrote, ‘If you need something attributable, you can take this on background from a White House official…'”
The whole ordeal took five hours. They sent him a statement, which he said did not answer the original question of why no reporters were allowed to travel with the first lady. They directed him to travel guidance and a press call transcript, none of which answered his question. He asked incredulously, “Why [did] the spokesperson in the First Lady’s office [not] want to give me a name I could put on a harmless, formulaic quote?”
Edward Luce, a U.S. columnist for Financial Times based in Washington, summed up just how hard it is covering the first lady. “I’ve covered autocracies that are more responsive – and less sensitive – than Obama WH,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s truly bizarre.”
Full disclosure: My own dealings with the first lady’s press office have been minimal. The few times I’ve requested information by email, they’ve been polite and responsive. Not on-the-record responsive, but responsive nonetheless.
Come on White House reporters and others covering Michelle Obama. I know you’re out there. Please write and share your stories, good, bad and everything in between, regarding your treatment by the first lady’s press office. I’ll protect your identities if need be as long as I know who you really are. Write to Betsy@TheMirror.com.