Carney maintains that it’s mostly the latter. “It’s not always a ‘Mister Rogers’ script, but we have good, very cordial” relationships with reporters, he said. “Obviously, we’re going to tell people what our view of things is.”
Several reporters interviewed for this article agreed with Carney’s assessment.
“My basic take is this is a contentious profession, especially in [the White House] beat, and there’s a lot of back and forth that goes on in private conversations,” said Jake Tapper, the senior White House correspondent for ABC News. “But I have never felt they went beyond the pale. I have a thick skin, and they do, too.”
Glenn Thrush, who is a reporter for a Web site and Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, said his encounters have been far more mild than what he experienced as a reporter covering New York City politics for Newsday.
“Coming from a New York tabloid background, having a flack speak to me in an elevated tone does not make me crawl under my desk,” he said. “It does not terrify me to have someone raise their voice occasionally. The expectation in covering the White House is that it’s always going to be about using the good china. Sometimes this is about paper plates.”
But others have been brought up short by the tone of their interactions when something displeases the communications staff. Half a dozen reporters contacted for this article described censorious e-mails or phone calls from Carney or his staff members that they characterized as heavy-handed. The reporters declined to speak for the record out of concern that doing so would further harm their relations with the White House.
Despite the blunt approach, no one on Carney’s staff has cut off access or otherwise frozen out a beat reporter. George Condon, who has covered the White House since the Carter administration, recalls that Speakes openly berated reporters during briefings.
But Condon, who writes for the National Journal, also says some of the interactions he has witnessed make this White House “different to a degree than what I’ve seen from earlier White Houses.” After a colleague wrote a column that was critical of Obama this year, he was hammered by e-mailed criticism from media officials, even though the president and much of his communications staff were in London at the time, Condon said.
Some of the missives are “strongly worded,” said Condon, who added, “I think they’d be better off to count to 10 before hitting the send button.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies the relationship between the White House and the media, said she has noticed “increased acrimony” in e-mail exchanges between reporters and White House communications employees since the Bush administration. Kumar, who received copies of the e-mails from reporters, says she has been particularly struck by the language, which has become “sharper and more confrontational, and more angry” over time.
But she said the deteriorating tone isn’t necessarily a reflection that relations are growing worse. Rather, it may be because people feel more comfortable communicating via e-mail and using profanity, she said. In an earlier era, the same interactions may have taken place over the phone or in person, with no record of them.
At the same time, she said, the news media are changing, with more deadline pressure and a constant demand for information. At the White House, “you’re dealing with people who are working very long hours. I think everyone is under enormous pressure, and that can lead to frayed tempers and misunderstanding. You put down things you can’t back away from later.”
Cannon and other reporters are convinced that the tough language and immediate response is part of a strategy. “It’s clear to me that [Obama’s media operation] looks at the press differently than anyone who was there before. The majority of reporters are trying to play it straight and get the story right, but they divide the world into two camps — they either favor you or try to punish you, depending if they see you as friend or foe.”