Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maureen Dowd Used To Question Off-The-Record Presidential Breakfasts. (But That Was Before Today's Breakfast.)

On April 2, 1989 -- about two decades before Maureen Dowd's off-the-record breakfast this morning with Barack Obama -- the then-White House reporter wrote a critical look at the practice of such sessions for Washington insiders.

Under the headline, "Journalists Debate the Risks As President Woos the Press," Dowd assessed President George H. W. Bush's habit of hosting off-the-record sessions for reporters. In the early days of that Bush administration, the president often invited journalists to background dinners at the White House, hoping to curry favor with a largely liberal press.

Dowd didn't appear to like the practice much back then, and devoted 1,540 words to a dissection of the issues it raised:

Some reporters say such private contacts give them additional insights. But many other journalists and media critics are skeptical, remembering the Camelot days when John F. Kennedy's courtship of reporters seemed to turn many of them into cheerleaders, and the tense days when Lyndon B. Johnson tried to build support for the Vietnam war with intense, personal persuasion of the press corps.

In both cases, many journalists worried afterwards that they may have crossed the line from journalism to advocacy.

Dowd revealed that Bush had summoned three top reporters to the White House for lunch -- Thomas L. Friedman, then diplomatic correspondent for The Times; Gerald Seib, then a White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Timothy J. McNulty, then the White House reporter for The Chicago Tribune -- in advance of meetings with Israeli and Egyptian leaders.

Dowd quoted her then-boss, Washington bureau chief Howell Raines, attacking the idea.

"We have serious misgivings about this approach," Raines told Dowd. "We've told our reporters not to give advice, to avoid expressing opinions that would cast doubt on their objectivity and to withdraw if they feel they are being co-opted or compromised."

This morning, Dowd was one of several journalists who went to breakfast with Obama at his transition headquarters. All those invited were liberal columnists; their conservative counterparts had dinner with Obama last night at George Will's home.

But four of them -- Dowd, Frank Rich, Bill Kristol and David Brooks -- represent the Times, and all of them incorporate reporting into their commentary. (Paul Krugman reportedly declined an invitation to attend.)

Was it appropriate for Dowd, as a trained reporter, to agree to an off-the-record encounter with the President-elect? Will she adhere to the ground rules, or report on the session in her next column?

It's interesting, in anticipation of the Obama administration, to reflect on Dowd's legitimate concerns in 1989 with the problems created by a president who prefers to talk to the media with their notebooks closed.

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