Obama press corps likely more diverse
Thursday November 06, 2008, 1:48 PM
When then-President Bill Clinton attended an intimate dinner with a group of African-American White House correspondents in July 1999, about nine reporters joined him at the table.
"I don't think we could have that dinner today," said attendee Wendell Goler, veteran White House man for Fox News. April Ryan, who covers the White House for American Urban Radio Networks and who also attended, agreed that there's been a decline in the number of black White House reporters during the Bush years, with just four or five regularly in the briefing room.
But as news organizations put the finishing touches on their White House teams and black-oriented publications look to ramp up their coverage of the first black president, that dynamic is poised to reverse.
While The New York Times has yet to announce its White House team, sources tell Politico that it will include Liberian-born journalist Helene Cooper, previously a diplomatic correspondent. Cooper has something in common with the president-elect — her own highly acclaimed memoir delving into her familial ties in Africa, published earlier this year.
Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet said he's chosen a team but declined to comment until there's a formal announcement.
On Monday, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli announced the paper's four-person White House team, which includes African-American Michael Fletcher, who covered the Bush administration for three years before shifting to the economics beat.
Fletcher said he "reject[s] the notion" that only a black reporter could cover a black politician, but said it can help to better understand the "racial context" of some issues and events, and that organizations assembling White House teams "would probably be more inclined to have a black reporter on the beat" as such.
"I would find it cynical to think that a news organization might feel that putting a black reporter over there might get them more access," said Goler, who's been at the White House since 1986.
While Washington bureaus have been shutting their doors as the newspaper business has flagged, black-oriented publications have been gearing up to cover Barack Obama.
Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, said that although his publications have maintained a presence in D.C. for years, including a small bureau just a block from the White House, they will focus more on the 44th president than they have on past administrations. "There wasn't a lot of attention to African-Americans in the Bush administration," he said, "or working for the issues that matter to black folks."
Monroe said that Obama coverage will stretch across three platforms: the monthly Ebony, weekly Jet, and daily website, EbonyJet. An Ebony/Jet reporter was aboard the campaign's plane when Obama traveled to the Middle East and Europe last July, and again for the final days of the election. At no point did they have a reporter with traveling with the McCain campaign.
Ryan, a regular in the briefing room since the Clinton administration, contends that black-oriented media should be covering elected leaders regardless of who's in the Oval Office. She added that President Bush even told her privately that there wasn't enough minority representation during his tenure.
But simply wanting to cover the White House isn't as easy as just showing up. Longtime correspondents tightly hold onto the best seats in the small work space in the basement. Coveted hard passes can take months to obtain through the Secret Service.
"I think people who haven't covered the White House will be surprised how rigid they are about rules," said Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner, mentioning the assigned seating as a particular sticking point among veterans.
White House bureaucracy aside, Mason — a frequent guest on MSNBC — said there seemed to already be more diversity in past months.
"The number of African-American commentators on TV has gone through the roof," Mason said, "and I think that'd be reflected in how [news organizations] cover the White House."