I first visited the White House Press room during the Reagan administration. Larry Speakes stood behind the podium during press briefings, if memory serves.
During that first visit I met a variety of D.C. reporting heavyweights. Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas, were among the first I met and both later served as mentors.
Helen, finding out my family lineage invited me to her house where she made me Kibbeh (The Lebanese dish I grew up making with raw beef – but she made with raw lamb).
She also offered me unfiltered opinions on a variety of subjects including the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
It was another two years before I revisited the press room – this time while I worked on a television investigative report about illegal immigrants and their use on the rich thoroughbred horse farms across the country.
Three or four times during the Reagan administration and perhaps a dozen or so other times during the Bush administration I visited the White House press room as part of my duties as a reporter.
In the 90s when I moved to the D.C. area I got my congressional press pass and though I was working for America’s Most Wanted I had several occasions where I visited the press room and sat in on briefings.
I traveled with Presidents and presidential candidates during the 1984, 88, 92, 96 and 2000 elections.
I was always impressed by the mental acumen and experience of those who covered the President on a daily basis. At one time I added up the experience of those sitting in the front row of the press room during a briefing and was humbled by the thought that among the five people sitting in those seats there was more than 160 years of experience – most of it from Helen Thomas.
I’ve visited the room off and on during the last decade and this week I visited it after a few years absence. I was, for a lack of a better term, stunned. The White House press room doesn’t at all resemble the room I experienced in my youth.
Instead of the raucous screams from a bunch of high-energy reporters hoping to pop in a pointed question, the group sat quietly and waited their turn to speak. On the upside Josh Earnest allows multiple follow up questions – almost unheard of when I first started. You had to fight to get a question in and then were – if you were lucky – allowed one follow up question.
The press room is tame and some of the questions were quite lame. I confess to rolling my eyes when someone asked how many drafts the President went through for his farewell speech in Chicago. I couldn’t have cared less whether he drafted it in long hand or that he writes left handed. I wanted to ask if he wrote it standing on one leg with a feather in his ear – but I wisely decided against that move.
In all fairness lame questions are not unheard of in the last 30 years in that room – there have been plenty. Sometimes they have to be asked for house cleaning purposes or to establish clarity when a Press Secretary obfuscates or muddles the facts.
On the upside, the press room in 2017 is far more diverse than my first visit where people of color – outside of the foreign press – were quite rare and Helen Thomas stood out not only for her tenure as a reporter, but the fact she was one of the few women in the room.
While we have gained a lot in diversity it is apparent, however, we’ve also lost a lot of experience.
The average age as well as the amount of experience among the reporters I saw this week was a far cry from what it used to be – and I’m not saying one caused the other. And I know some of the most experienced reporters are already covering President-elect Trump.
Still, it is time to up our game.
The incoming President-elect is a challenge for the best of us. We need reporters who understand government, can ask pointed questions and won’t take the bait of a moronic tweet and screw up while covering the real issues.
It will be interesting to see who is in the White House press room after next week. I am not shorting those who’ve spent a few years there, but Josh Earnest and President Obama, while having their faults, are nothing compared to the coming bombast.
If President-elect Trump’s first news conference taught us anything it is this: Be prepared and vet your facts. And stand together.
Part of the challenge facing journalism is symbolized in the struggle to report on the White House. You need experience. Experience costs more money. You want to make a profit – but high salaries eat into profit margins. You want to cozy up to power, but asking pointed questions ruffles feathers. Standing against the Bully Pulpit can cost you access. It is an old problem and one we have to be better solving and one we must do quickly.