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The White House and the Press Corps

By Dan Froomkin
1:24 PM ET, 01/23/2009

Despite all of Obama's impressive nods to transparency, based on reports of the first briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday, it didn't look like a whole new era in the press room.

Gibbs seemed to see his job as deflecting questions rather than answering them. How Bushian.

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Gibbs dished quips and performed many familiar routines that won him raves from three former White House press secretaries I surveyed afterward. He avoided specifics in favor of firmly stated generalities. He stuck to the talking points. . . .

"Afterward, a colleague joked to me, 'About midway through, I thought I was going to fall asleep.' Too bad Obama has frozen the salaries of his top staffers. In earlier times, that kind of praise for a press secretary would have gotten him a raise."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "For the voice of an administration that came to office promising openness and transparency, he instead sounded, well, abundantly cautious."

A major topic at the press conference was the White House's decision not to allow press photographers at the do-over of Obama's swearing in on Wednesday. The reporters had a good point, and the Obama White House should not make a habit of substituting its own photographs for journalism.

But there was only one question about a much more serious potential precedent -- the background briefing I mentioned earlier. Cox News reporter Ken Herman asked Gibbs: "Why do the American people not have a right to know the names of the senior administration officials who briefed us this morning on the Guantanamo and related orders?"

Gibbs replied: "I hope that you all found the exercise that we did this morning helpful in further understanding the process by which the President had tasked his team to establish policies that he thinks enhances the security of the United States, and to do so in a way that helps inform you of the decisions that he's made and the decisions that he will make over the course of this, and do so in a way that's helpful to your job."

If Obama really wants transparency, he has to let his top aides speak to the press on the record. That's something worth haranguing Gibbs about.

Mimi Hall writes for USA Today: "Ari Fleischer, who was former president George W. Bush's first press secretary, said the efforts to control press access and coverage prove that Obama's promise of open government is thin.

"'He made similar lofty, good government reform promises throughout the campaign, and when he realized they weren't to his advantage, he reversed himself,' Fleischer said. 'So, too, it will be with transparency.'"

Fleischer has a lot of gall saying that -- but Gibbs hasn't proved him wrong.

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