There have, on occasion, been other opportunities with few restrictions, especially during the administration of President Bill Clinton when press secretary Mike McCurry would attempt to sneak out for a quick smoke and provide answers to questions with a quick wit.
(Most correspondents, for what it’s worth, consider McCurry the gold standard when it comes to press secretaries even though he would sometimes complain to the bosses of those he felt were not giving the administration a fair shake. All press secretaries have been known to do that.)
A formal press briefing usually is slated for early in the afternoon. Carney and others before him take questions from correspondents in the front two rows where the power hitters are found before recognizing the proletariat in the back. Basically, these sessions begin and end on the press secretary’s whim.
Occasionally there are fireworks. David Gregory of NBC News famously got into it hot and heavy with Scott McClellan, Fleischer’s successor, during a briefing after Hurricane Katrina.
A little more than a year ago, acting on complaints from some members of the press corps, the White House Correspondents Association met with Carney to voice concern about instances of harsh treatment. The Washington Post reported that one of those instances involved Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News, who revealed on Oct. 4, 2011, during an interview on The Laura Ingraham Show, that “a guy from the White House…literally screamed at me” regarding her reporting on Operation Fast and Furious.
“They think I’m unfair and biased by pursuing it,” she said.
And then there’s pool duty, which occurs in various forms. If the president meets with some dignitary in the Oval Office – which is smaller than it looks – the entire White House press corps couldn’t cram into the room with a shoehorn. Therefore, about once a month, perhaps more frequently, news organizations representing print, television and radio media pull pool duty. Representing the entire correspondents association, the pool is hauled into the office to witness the occasion and almost immediately hauled out. Sometimes the president and his guest even deign to answer questions. The event is faithfully reported by the pool with the information distributed to interested media parties.
But that’s not all the pool does. Sometimes, for instance, the president gets hungry and decides to roam outside the confines of the White House. Or he has an in-town fundraiser he needs to attend or he wants to go to a party at someone’s private residence. In such an event, the pool tags along just in case something of consequence happens.
It hardly ever does. Meaning the pool sits away from the action and waits. And waits. And waits.
Bush, for instance, has a famous taste for Tex-Mex fare and would occasionally set out to partake, leaving the pool parked outside while he enjoyed the chili rellenos inside. On such occasions, the pool had about as great an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the most powerful man in the world as someone passing by on her bicycle.
Presidential press conferences are a bit different. News organizations must request permission to attend and their representatives are seated, usually in the East Room, wherever the staff wants them to sit.
During one such occasion relatively early in his first administration, Bush revealed a secret that had long been suspected – the press office provided him with a list of which correspondents to call on – presumably those who might be considered safe.