Pressroom of Babel

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.

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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.

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