The decades-old conflict between the press's right to know and the White House's desire for effective messaging reached a flash point over the weekend with the White House Press Corps being excluded from President Obama's golf outing with Tiger Woods.
"This isn't about the president’s golf score or having a beer on the 19th hole,” said Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a group promoting policies for government accessibility and accountability. “This really gets to the president being responsive to the public. Sure the president deserves a vacation, but as president you cannot just disappear for four days."
For some in the press corps, the question of Obama's accessibility is especially pointed. Longtime White House correspondent Anne Compton of ABC News told Politico recently: "The way the president's availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace. ... This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.”
Her angst and that of others journalists may be exacerbated because Obama, known to be one of the most effective communicators of the modern presidency, is increasingly taking his message over the heads of the press corps and directly to the American people.
That is nothing new. But unlike previous administrations, the White House has new technologies to maximize its effect. Twitter, social media, Google fireside chats, local TV news interviews, entertainment shows, campaign-style appearances are all a part of the White House messaging strategy. And they are also the venues in which the president’s calm, folksy style works well.
"I think if you're running a campaign that's true," Blum said. But "if you're running a government, you want to be able to explain what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, so the public can engage in the process.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rejects the notion that the president is bypassing the press corps to get out its message.
"I will note," Carney said at Tuesday's press briefing, "when it come to solo news conferences, President Obama has given 35 of those. President Bush, his immediate predecessor, gave 19."
Independent research conducted by Fox News finds starkly different figures than Carney's. The president has held 21 solo White House news conferences to date. President George W. Bush held 15 in his first term, Fox News found.
Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University who tracks every question that journalists ask the president, told Politico that Obama held brief press availabilities after photos ops or announcements one-third as much as George W. Bush did in his first term -- 107 to Bush's 355.
"I think they've chosen transparency up to a point,” Blum said. “The distinction here is that on some issues they've decided, ‘We'll explain it, but then you have to trust us.’ You also have to face tough questions from reporters. The public expects that of their leaders."
Kumar suggests that expectation makes the role of the press corps more relevant than ever.
"If you look at the various news websites on the Internet, you know what information they are using? They are using stories from (the Associated Press,) The New York Times, The Washington Post. So, it all comes back to that."
Yet, she notes, the president has not granted interviews in years to the Post, The Times or The Wall Street Journal.