Reviewing the White House-Herald dust-up

The seriousness with which you take the dust-up between the Boston Herald and the White House over a page-one Mitt Romney op-ed piece depends in part on whether you think the Herald was actually restricted from covering President Obama’s fundraising trip to Boston on Wednesday.

Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld, for instance, takes a shot at a “few self-described media critics” who thought White House spokesman Matt Lehrich’s inflammatory email to the Herald was a worse offense than “apparently restricting access to punish perceived unfriendly media outlets.” I know Battenfeld is referring to me, because we kicked it back and forth on Twitter a bit. (And rather than “self-described,” Joe, why don’t you say “as described by Fox News”?)

Yet according to the initial story, by the Herald’s Hillary Chabot, Lehrich’s email made it clear that the Herald had not been restricted — that is, the Boston Globe’s Donovan Slack had already been given the pool slot, and the Herald would be considered for pool duty in the future. Seen in that light, Lehrich’s thuggish complaints about the Herald were entirely gratuitous, and in fact really were a worse offense than what the White House did to the Herald. Because the White House, as best as we can tell, did not do anything to the Herald.

At Mediaite, Tommy Christopher quotes White House deputy secretary Josh Earnest:

Our policy is clearly articulated in the on the record comment that the Herald received on tuesday: in this particular instance, the Boston Globe had arranged with the White House Correspondents Association, independent of the White House press office, to be part of the traveling press pool. As such, there was no need for an additional local pooler in Boston. As we have in the past — including the multiple occasions on which the Herald has supplied local pool reporters — we will continue to consider the Herald for local pool duty during future visits.

Also, you should note that Herald reporters were granted access by the White House: to witness the arrival of Air Force One in Boston, to attend the President’s remarks at his first event and to review the written accounts of the small group of traveling reporters who covered the president’s second event on behalf of the entire White House press corps.

Christopher adds:

… Lehrich’s original response made clear that the Romney op-ed had nothing to do with the decision to go with the Boston Globe for the press pool, a decision that wasn’t even made by the White House. As Earnest points out (and I concur, from experience), it is not customary to increase the size of the pool contingent to accommodate a special request. Perceived fairness had nothing to do with this.

Why bring it up, then? This press office has never been shy about letting reporters know when they think we’ve been unfair, and this appears to be a somewhat heavy-handed example of that.

But if this isn’t quite as big a deal as the Herald’s massive, self-congratulatory coverage would have you believe, it’s also an exaggeration to dismiss this as much ado about nothing. The Phoenix’s David Bernstein, a former colleague whose views I respect, nevertheless veers a bit too far in that direction, writing that “as far as I can tell, she [Chabot] and the Herald have not been denied anything by anybody — which did not prevent them from splaying their victimization on the front page.”

Bernstein does refer to Lehrich’s email as “ham-handed,” but I think it’s quite a bit worse than that. It’s pretty disturbing that a newspaper would apply to let one of its staffers be a pool reporter and, in return, receive an email from a flack whining and complaining about Romney’s op-ed, and strongly suggesting that there might be repercussions. It creates the impression that the White House rewards its friends and punishes its enemies, even if there’s nothing on the record to suggest that’s what really happened. And it doesn’t help that Lehrich, who ought to be fired, calls Obama political consultant David Axelrod “Uncle Dave.”

Yes, of course the Herald went overboard. That’s more or less its mission statement when stuff like this happens. But I’m glad the paper brought Lehrich’s miserable email to light — and that it became a national story.

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10 thoughts on “Reviewing the White House-Herald dust-up

  1. BP Myers

    Probably just me misunderstanding the way the sausage is made, but there is a bit of a disconnect (if not disingenuousness) in the first highlighted quite from Tommy Christopher.

    He first washes the White House’s hands of the whole thing saying apparently (in this instance) it was the White House Correspondent’s Association that picked the pool, however goes on to say that the White House will, in the future, consider the Herald. Again, it’s either obfuscation by means of an avalanche of words, or me misunderstanding.

    The nepotism angle may be the most interesting thing about the story. What are this guy’s credentials anyway, to be speaking on behalf of the White House (aside from, well, you know?) Curious how old he is too.

    My own experience has been (in corporate America, anyway) that anything that went out with the company’s impramatur was vetted. Did anyone even look at this guy’s tripe, or is he so confident he cannot be fired he thinks he can just say whatever he wants?

  2. Dan Kennedy

    @BP: Lehrich’s comments are a mess. When the guy from Fox News and I were talking it over, we both concluded that Lehrich was saying, We’re not punishing you, but if we were, this would be the reason. I think Earnest speaks much more authoritatively. My guess is that Lehrich has been quietly taken to the woodshed — not nearly enough punishment, but probably as much as you can mete out to David Axelrod’s nephew.

  3. L.K. Collins

    It creates the impression that the White House rewards its friends and punishes its enemies, even if there’s nothing on the record to suggest that’s what really happened.” — Dan Kennedy

    At what point, after repeated examples of this sort of “impression”, Dan, does the public have the right to conclude that its Government is interfering with the press freedom to address matters of its own choosing as a matter of policy?

  4. Jack Sullivan

    The White House is being extraordinarily obtuse here, trying to have it all ways. They deflect the criticism by saying the WHCA set up the pool but that is wholly disingenuous. All the WHCA did was allow Donovan Slack to buy a vacant seat in the travel pool. That didn’t guarantee her coverage pool space because that’s not up to the WHCA, although they wish it were. It IS the White House that decides who is in the coverage pools, not necessarily the traveling pools. Absolutely the Herald rode this mule for all its worth and since Hilary was the pool reporter for an appearance last year and Herald reporters have been on the bus during the Obama vacations, the outrage is misdirected on their part. But the bigger problem is the administration declaring only friendlies are allowed and using the WHCA as cover. If I was Marty Baron, I would have made a show of protest over Lehrich’s reasoning if only because by default, Lehrich put the official impratur on the Globe’s Obama coverage and makes all news coverage suspect for those who want to believe there is a media bias.

  5. Jack Sullivan

    By the way, never be your own editor, I always say. I just don’t take my own advice. Imprimatur sted impratur. Sheesh, talk about blind outrage on my part.

  6. T. Prussman

    White House Correspondents Association specifically denies making the assignment to the Boston pool, in contradiction to Matt Lehrich’s original, and Josh Earnest’s follow-up comments on the issue:

    “The WHCA was not involved in arranging local pool coverage of the event in Boston,” said Caren Bohan, a Reuters White House reporter and vice president of the WHCA

    http://www.bostonherald.com/news/us_politics/view/2011_0521white_house_press_pool_rules_muddled/

  7. Dan Kennedy

    @T. Prussman: I’ve gone back and re-read Lehrich’s and Earnest’s statements. I don’t think the new information contradicts what they said. But it seems to me they were being slimy anyway. I’m still thinking this through, which is why I’m writing in the comments rather than on the front of the blog. I’m curious to know what others make of this.

    For instance, here’s the excerpt from Hillary Chabot’s original story on what Lehrich said:

    Lehrich said the Herald wasn’t purposefully barred from the press pool, saying local pool duty by the Boston Globe was arranged earlier with the White House Correspondents Association. And Lehrich insisted the Herald may yet be allowed into Obama events.

    “As we have in the past — including the multiple occasions on which the Herald has supplied local pool reporters — we will continue to consider the Herald for local pool duty for future visits,” Lehrich wrote.

    And here’s Earnest in Mediaite:

    Our policy is clearly articulated in the on the record comment that the Herald received on tuesday: in this particular instance, the Boston Globe had arranged with the White House Correspondents Association, independent of the White House press office, to be part of the traveling press pool. As such, there was no need for an additional local pooler in Boston.

    Seen in light of Richard Weir’s story today, it seems that Lehrich and Earnest were implicitly acknowledging what the White House Correspondents Association is saying — that the WHCA arranges pool coverage among the national press, and that the White House decides whether to add any local reporters to the pool.

    What’s slimy is that Lehrich and Earnest are both practically talking in code, making it very difficult to figure out that they are, in fact, admitting it was their call as to whether the Herald should be allowed into the pool.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    One other point: Lehrich’s original statement did acknowledge that the White House had a role in approving pool requests — I mean, that was the whole point, right? But he was also ambiguous.

  9. Pingback: Herald v Obama saga reveals much about how politicians deal with the media by Marjorie Arons-Barron | richardhowe.com

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