It's not his fault. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Press Secretaries Are Not the Problem

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Dave Weigel's complaint about the White House Press Secretary has it all backward. The press secretaries have been almost universally excellent. The problem is the White House press corps.

Kevin Drum points out that White House correspondents tend to treat the televised briefing as a gotcha contest, apparently in hope of finding the next Watergate. But the Watergate story wasn't a product of the White House briefing; the most valuable Watergate stories came from sources in the various agencies involved. Mark Felt -- AKA "Deep Throat" -- was at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the White House.

That's not an accident. The White House staff is the one part of the government that is directly responsible to, and thus unusually loyal to, the president. Even in these highly partisan times, when the White House staff may also have strong loyalty to party, the institutional incentives mostly reward loyalty to the individual who occupies the Oval Office. About the best White House reporters can hope for is internal friction, with fighting staffers leaking in order to advance internal agendas. Most of the time there won't be much substance in those leaks. (That is, finding out who backed winning or losing policies rarely tells us anything useful.) Even then, any good stuff will be communicated off-camera -- not in an official briefing by the press secretary.

That's not the case elsewhere in government, where mixed lines of authority provide incentives to give the press useful information about how the government works.

Unfortunately, the desire for prestige seems to put on-camera questions at the top of many journalists' to-do lists. The White House beat in general is a prestige post. Reporters who cover agencies brush up against far less glamour. As a result, ambitious reporters want the White House job, even though it's a lousy place to actually learn what's going on in government. If the goal is to gain useful information, the agency beats are almost certainly superior.

Meanwhile, giving out the official administration line is a useful (and difficult) job. After all, the official line often contains quite a lot of truth, and it's at least important for the press to know what the White House wants them to think, as long as they recognize that it's never going to be the whole truth. So don't knock the press secretaries. It's not their fault the White House beat is a waste of good reporters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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Frank Wilkinson at