THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
July 21, 1996, Sunday, HOME FINAL EDITION SECTION: SUNDAY READER; BOOKS; Pg. 8J
LENGTH: 466 words
Covering the White House might seem the most glamorous of assignments. These journalists witness history being made, and their work gets plenty of exposure. It must be an exhilarating, career-enhancing job.
Reality, however, is not so appealing. The White House beat features long hours, bad working conditions and dependence on officials who despise the press.
Kenneth Walsh, who has covered the White House since 1986 for U.S. News & World Report, understands the stressful symbiosis that is at the heart of the relationship between presidency and press.
In Feeding the Beast, Mr. Walsh presents a critical and insightful appraisal of White House reporters and those whom they cover.
In this milieu, there is no shortage of arrogance or cynicism.
"The press corps," writes Mr. Walsh, "doesn't trust the presidency to do any more than spew out self-serving claptrap." He complains fiercely about White House officials not making time to talk to the press. Granted, journalists merit respect as the public's surrogates, but the White House staff has more to do than leap into action whenever a reporter wants an interview.
White House officials are always ready to blame the press for problems they themselves have created. If a president stumbles through policy decisions or displays flawed judgment, that is not the news media's fault.
Nevertheless, President Clinton's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, makes a good point when he says of press coverage, "We need a better balanced picture of reality, not just the negative."
Mr. Walsh agrees, at least generally, with that view. He says, "Our penchant for the negative and the subjective, our rush to judgment, and our lack of contact with everyday America are causing the public to turn against us."
Feeding the Beast is strongest when Mr. Walsh resists the allure of anecdote and addresses the changing tone and substance of news coverage. For instance, he notes the continuing uncertainty about the effect of so much news being made available to the public on CNN, C-SPAN, the Internet and other venues. Is this surge of information producing a comparable surge of knowledge, or are political leaders merely being overexposed to an inattentive, skeptical public?
Pondering such questions is far more useful than lapsing into what Mr. Walsh calls "a mutual cynicism that interferes with the ability and willingness of both sides to educate the country."
Both sides - the news media and the presidency - would benefit from setting aside that cynicism and thinking instead about constructive coexistence. Taking up the issues Kenneth Walsh considers in Feeding the Beast would be a good way to start.
Philip Seib is a frequent contributor to the Books pages.
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.