"Helen Thomas's blue-padded seat in the front row of the White House briefing room has barely cooled," reports a breathless Wall Street Journal article, "but her former colleagues in the press are already climbing over each other to fill it." Bloomberg reporter Ed Chen, the departing president of the White House Correspondents' Association, told the Journal, "It's like musical chairs in elementary school, except it has the cutthroat viciousness of a snake pit." I realize I'm almost unnecessary here, but wait, this story gets even better. In a follow-up, CNN reporter Ed Henry, a board member of the correspondents group, is quoted saying he backs Fox: "When CNN bid for the front row in 2007, Fox could have challenged it and had a knock-down, drag-out fight like the one we might have this time. But they did the gentlemanly thing and said CNN had more seniority. I've got to honor that commitment."
OK, I'll admit it. This column can pretty much write itself: it's a perfect metaphor for the childish insularity and ego-driven myopia of the contemporary White House press corps, a group of self-important crybabies who grow increasingly irrelevant with the creation of every new news source, every individual blog post. But even so, they are worth a look. Is something wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways.
The entire focus of the White House press corps is on what happens inside the White House. While that's not irrelevant, neither is it what's really important. Reporters climb over one another like gerbils in a crowded cage, and for what? It's rarely to examine the consequences of any given policy—"substance," after all, is not their beat. (The atmosphere in the room is simultaneously so anti-intellectual and ahistorical that the Bush administration was able to employ a press secretary, Dana Perino, who said she had no idea what happened during the Cuban missile crisis.) What really gets journalistic juices flowing in this room is to try to catch someone, preferably the president, in a gaffe, an "off-message" remark, a private moment or an emotional outburst. This last goal has lately become a kind of obsession of this press corps, so offended are they by Obama's preference for calm, reasonable arguments.
Readers may recall that it was Mr. Henry who made a spectacle of himself at one of President Obama's earliest press conferences when he repeatedly demanded to know why the president was letting other politicians sound madder than he was about AIG's executive bonuses. "So on AIG, why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage.... It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, 'Look, we're outraged.' Why did it take so long?" Obama's answer: "Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak." Henry, believe it or not, actually took pride in this incident, later bragging, "From just a few feet away, I could see in his body language that the normally calm and cool president was perturbed." The same sort of silliness characterized an exchange between Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and CBS's Chip Reid in the briefing room on the president's reaction to the oil spill:
Reid: I haven't—have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no.
Gibbs: I've seen rage from him, Chip. I have.
Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do?
According to Dave Briggs of Fox News's Fox & Friends, this rage is what the "country's been begging for." "Emotion, right? A little emotion!" added his colleague Eric Bolling the next day. (Though, for the record, polls show that Obama's approval ratings have remained steady for the past eight weeks since the oil spill, as they have pretty much done ever since his honeymoon period ended, according to the New York Times's Caucus blog.) When Obama did offer a partial concession to the howling mob—declaring that he was trying to figure out "whose ass to kick" in an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer—Stanley Crouch, writing in The Daily Beast, aptly scored the president for submitting "to the kind of minstrelsy demanded of anyone, high or low, these days."
Then there's this matter of the legitimation of Fox News. As I have written over and over in this space, Fox is not a news network. It is a propaganda arm of a political movement, one that seeks to employ the Republican Party to serve the needs of corporate wealth, religious extremism and narrow-minded resentment against non-Christian, nonwhite Americans. As Media Matters argued in the wake of the debate over Thomas's seat, "Fox News aggressively promoted the 'tea party' protests, which Fox itself described as primarily a response to President Obama's fiscal policies, and uses its airwaves to engage in open advocacy against the White House and congressional Democrats. In recent years, at least 20 Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes.... Republican parties and officials have routinely touted these personalities' affiliations with Fox News to sell and promote their events." (It is worth noting that Fox's reported competition, Bloomberg News, while much more dependable professionally, is devoted largely to providing news to businessmen and investors and spreading their laissez-faire ideology. The interests and views of working people and the unemployed, who lack sufficient disposable income for investment purposes, are of little concern, either to Bloomberg or much of the rest of the room.)
I don't have much sympathy for anyone who thinks Jews ought to "go home" to Poland and Germany, but face it, when it comes to crazy, Helen Thomas had plenty of competition.