White House Correspondents' Association president: Obama's now 'a heck of a lot harder to get on the phone'
When President Obama looks out at Washington’s most celebrity-filled audience Saturday night, no reporter in the room will know him better than one sitting about a foot away: Christi Parsons.
Parsons, the White House correspondent for Tribune Publishing, has covered Obama since he was a little known state senator in the Illinois legislature, which she covered for the Chicago Tribune. (Disclosure: Parsons and I worked together at the Chicago Tribune.) She’ll now be seated next to him, at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, as president of the White House Correspondents Association.
That means the spotlight will be on her, too, after a one-year term in which she’s won much praise for leading the group in addition to the often-long hours of her day job.
If you’re an association member, as I am, you’ve seen her manically prodding institutional change. Especially in discerning ways for press “pools” to get information more quickly about the president’s words and actions, she’s put in new processes and done it with a deft and democratic hand.
"As President of the Correspondents’ Association, Christi has been a tireless fighter for press access to an administration which does its best to minimize contact between reporters and senior officials," says CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante. "She’s also adamant that the primary purpose of the annual Dinner is the awarding of journalism scholarships – despite the carnival atmosphere which has come to surround the event."
In addition, there have been seminars and gatherings for reporters, all with the aim of bringing together a rich history and a challenging present.
That present includes an unceasing battle for access. It’s meant that Parsons has continually fought White House attempts to be secretive, circumvent reporters and get out its “message” and images (photos and video of Obama) in as unfiltered a way as possible.
It led to the association this week disclosing a draft set of coverage principles and a second, very detailed set of proposed practices that would greatly alter the White House way of operating with the media.
On Thursday, Parsons found time to answer ten questions amid dealing with her day job, which included Obama surfacing in the briefing room to apologize for the deadly drone mistake that resulted in the accidental deaths of two men held hostage by Al Qaeda.
That means finding time amid the challenges of the dinner, which has morphed into The Social Event of the Washington year, given the burgeoning, and at times rather seamless, mix of the rich, the famous and the journalists. There were 1,200 more requests for tickets than could be accommodated, which meant a tricky, political process of saying “no” to a lot of organizations.
But before the paparazzi camp out at the Washington Hilton, and some of the press suck up to actors and reality show icons, here are ten questions for Christi Parsons:
Q. To the outside world the association increasingly seems to be about the celebrity-filled dinner. Is that a frustration for you?
A: We understand that people tune in to us the night the dinner is televised, and we try to make the most of it by talking about excellence in journalism and the fight for openness, transparency and press freedom. That's what we spend every day of every year working to promote on behalf of our readers, listeners and viewers. We use the spotlight to tell them about it.
Q. Put aside the dinner. The association is doing some substantive work. Can you give examples during your tenure?
A: The most important thing is our constant fight to see, hear and witness the president and his staff at work. Each day, members of the WHCA board are working to open that door a little wider through advocacy with the White House and anyone who might be influential in the conversation.
The full press corps is now collaborating on a set of rules we hope this administration will embrace and, by its example, pass on to its successor. We're also working to make it easier for our poolers to share information with the press corps and to make it possible for more journalists to get information from the White House.
Q. Each White House seems to build on the predecessor in terms of trying to control the flow of information. How big an impediment is it now?
A: The proliferation of social media presents a great challenge. Officials have more options than ever to tell their own story directly to the people. There's nothing wrong with that, except when it threatens to get in the way of their openness with the free, independent and adversarial press. It takes constant vigilance to stay on top of that, as the next threat always comes from something we hadn't heard of six months prior.
Q. You've known the president since he was a state senator and you were a statehouse reporter. What's the biggest change you have seen?
A: He's a heck of a lot harder to get on the phone.
Q. The press doesn’t exactly enjoy exalted status? How can you try to get momentum behind your movement for far greater transparency at the White House?
A: Our board is committed to being very open and transparent with our members and with the public about our mission, and we hope that will increase their awareness of and trust in us. When we're vigorously speaking for the American people we represent as readers, views and listeners, we are pretty hard to turn away.
Q. Who is your guest at the dinner?
A: Tribune Publishing invites only journalists, their bosses and newsmakers. I've been so busy on that set of rules this week that I haven't even tuned in to find out who the guests are. [Note: As president of the association, Parson gets to have a family table, and at her table, her guest will be the journalist Peter Greste, who spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison before his release in February.]
Q. There's tension about White House pool reports, and who gets access to them. How is the association working to resolve that?
A: Many of us believe the pool reports belong to the public and that we should share them with anyone interested in having them. Others feel that, if they spend all the work to generate them, they should have a right to use them for publication before sending them out in raw form to the wider world. The poolers themselves will have to agree on a policy, and we're fostering an internal discussion about that now, but my strong feeling is that they will err on the side of sharing. This is the spirit of the White House press corps. There's a strong sense of duty to democracy in that amazing bunch of journalists.
Q. Somewhat related to that: What's the biggest challenge about determining who is a reporter these days? Who warrants a WHCA or White House credential?
A: We have a very expansive definition, because we believe in a diversity of viewpoints and voices. The U.S. Secret Service decides who gets a pass to come on to the grounds every day, but we welcome all journalists who do the work it takes to cover the beat.
Q. What’s been the neatest moment during your past year, be it in your role as WHCA president or just a rank-and-file reporter?
A: I was the print pooler in China on the president's winter trip there and, as we were entering a meeting to watch the American and Chinese leaders talking, the Chinese foreign minister abruptly decided that I could not enter with the rest of the pool.
The White House press advance team and I had fought hard (together, as is often the case in foreign countries) for that opportunity to have eyes on the proceedings. I was just about to throw a fit when the Fox News camera guy in the crew firmly put his camera on the ground and refused to budge without me. "We go in together," he said. And so we did.
This is the fiercest, most competitive press corps in the world. And yet when it comes to press freedom, they stick together like soldiers. It's the most moving thing I've ever seen.
Q. What’s your favorite difference between flying on Air Force One and, with all due respect, Southwest Airlines?
A: When you're on Air Force One, you carry a heavy, solemn responsibility to remain vigilant. On Southwest, you can have a cocktail and take a nap.