After years of way too much Trump, White House reporters need to shift focus

Political media must pivot from "What did the president just say?" to a focus on what's actually getting done

Published January 22, 2021 5:30PM (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden became the 46th president of the United States earlier today during the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office just hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden became the 46th president of the United States earlier today during the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

Covering Donald Trump's White House was easy. All that mattered was Trump.

It might have been exhausting, given his manic and narcissistic proclivity to say absolutely whatever came to mind, whenever, and regardless of what he had said before. But it was hardly mentally taxing, especially for the many White House reporters who were satisfied with simply capturing his words rather than genuinely contextualizing them.

Tracking down Trump cronies to whom they could offer anonymity in return for lies and gossip was also time-consuming for those reporters, I'm sure. But it did not require an understanding of the complex work of governing. In fact, that would probably have been a handicap.

But now we return to a state of affairs in which the White House is more than just the president's whims and mood disorders. It is filled with staff, and process, and sometimes competing senses of mission.

And it's hugely important for our major news organizations to break themselves of the habit of obsessively focusing on what the president says — and instead devote themselves to exploring much more broadly what is going on inside the White House, and how and why.

The nation faces an unprecedented array of challenges, which require a wide-ranging series of actions, all of which must come from this White House, which needs not just to reverse course but to set an entirely new one.

"What did the president just say?" is no longer the question reporters should be consumed by. "How can we fix this mess?" is the right question. It's also a much more complicated question and much harder to answer, requiring a lot of research and context and critical thinking.

To his credit, new White House chief of staff Ron Klain actually summarized the challenges quite well in a public memo to staff four days before they all became official:

We face four overlapping and compounding crises: the COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis. All of these crises demand urgent action.

So the daily press briefings, for instance, shouldn't be about what the president thinks about this or that, they should be about what the White House is actually doing about those crises.

Instead of asking about Biden's exercise bike or whether he will keep Trump's Air Force One color scheme or other fluff, reporters should ask what specific steps are being taken. Even better, they should ask what future steps are being contemplated, by whom, what the alternative views are, and which seems to be prevailing. And they should get substantive answers, not canned talking points.

It was great to see new White House press secretary Jen Psaki come out only hours after the inauguration and treat the press with respect. She promised to do that daily and — most significantly — not to constantly utter a stream of lies. But reporters should demand not just announcements, but a metaphorical flinging open of the White House windows.

That's in the Biden administration's own interest: Only with radical transparency can the government earn back the trust of the people. That can't happen if all the people in the decision-making process are hidden away out of public view.

I realize that since it's so early, reporters may first need to get to know the new players. Biden swore in nearly a thousand appointees on Wednesday. His "landing teams" have fanned out to all the executive-branch agencies. And of course nominees to Cabinet posts and other major jobs are just now going through the confirmation process.

Those are the people who will actually be getting things done. Reporters should be actively pursuing them and getting them to share their backgrounds and views — on the record. In fact, a key initial test of the Biden White House's true dedication to transparency will come when those officials either agree to talk on the record or do not.

To that end, reporters should join the Society of Professional Journalists in insisting that the Biden White House "end restrictions on employees in federal offices and agencies that prohibit speaking to the press without notification or oversight by authorities, often by using public information officers as gatekeepers."

Reporters should join the good-government groups pushing for greater transparency about possible conflicts of interest by requiring appointees coming from the private sector to disclose not just who they worked for but what they did for the companies they worked for.

As I've written previously, reporters should demand that the White House proactively establish entire classes of documents that will be made public by federal agencies without reporters having to ask, including the calendars of top White House officials and agency heads, agency org charts, unclassified correspondence with Congress and more.

Reporters should then report about what they've found out — not just follow the president around.

After four years of effectively no process at all, reporters should keep a close eye on what sorts of processes the Biden White House is following.

There was already one significant sign of change on Wednesday, which as far as I can tell leading White House reporters didn't even notice. It was a hugely ambitious memo with the subject line "Modernizing Regulatory Review."

That memo would appear to be the first step in turning the innocuous-sounding Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from a notorious bottleneck for pro-consumer and pro-worker regulations into a powerful force for progressive reform. The memo envisions a regulatory review process that will "promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations." This would be a seismic change, even from past Democratic administrations.

James Goodwin, a policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, wrote in an email on Thursday that he's been trying to persuade reporters that "this was potentially the most important thing Biden did yesterday." But apparently without much luck.

Here's something else to keep in mind: Historically, some of the best White House coverage hasn't involved the president at all. It comes from reporters with deep sourcing in the agencies and in the field — reporters who don't just react to official statements, but act proactively.

I have found it depressing to see so many of the same people assigned to cover this White House as covered the last one, instead of, say, subject-matter experts. If it were up to me, I'd replace most of the White House press corps with health reporters, environment reporters and reporters who focus on racial and economic inequality — and I'd encourage them to ignore talking points in favor of original reporting.

One positive sign worth noting is the Washington Post's assignment of longtime White House reporter David Nakamura to an entirely new beat, "to write broadly about the federal government's role in protecting and ensuring civil rights in America, based at the Justice Department." I think thematic beats like that are the future.

Finally, there's another good reason to stop focusing so much on the president. It's not just that with Biden as president, the president is no longer the only person in the White House who matters. He may not even be the person in the White House who matters the most.

Given the choice of who I'd most want an hour-long sit-down interview with, I'd probably pick Klain over Biden. He would be more likely to know the answers to my questions.

Biden is the right man for the moment: He is almost uniquely human, after a president who was almost uniquely inhuman; he is compassionate and empathetic, after a stunning absence of both; he seems truly devoted to bringing about greater unity in this country at a time when, as he said in his inaugural speech, people can't even agree on common facts.

But I suspect that his leadership style will be more Ronald Reagan than Barack Obama — or Trump, for that matter. He seems likely to be more of a figurehead, leaving the weedy work to others.

And that weedy work is what will make all the difference.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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