Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Pressby Kenneth T. Walsh
Avoiding single-minded laments on the shortcomings of the presidency or the failings of the press, Feeding the Beast is an evenhanded though often damning critique of the relationship between the White House and the news media, a relationship that can create more problems that it solves. For an informed electorate and an enlightened citizenry, few institutions are more important than the presidency and the mainstream media, and here Kenneth T. Walsh, a senior White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, candidly reports how ordinary citizens are the biggest losers in the current state of affairs. The widespread practice of "spin doctoring," the willingness on the part of the White House to mislead the press, overly interpretive reporting, and "gotcha" journalism do more to distort reality than illuminate it.
Walsh chronicles a passing parade of fascinating characters that have shaped our times and influenced our lives, while at the same time pulling back the curtain and laying bare many commonly held illusions. The connection between the White House and the press corps works well when the people involved interact well, and in shedding light on some of those relationships, Walsh relates his afternoon of pitching horseshoes with George Bush; Dan Quayle's previously undisclosed MTV gambit; and what it's like to interview Bill and Hillary Clinton; and he explains in fresh detail the ways Ronald Reagan was able to choreograph his presidency.
Starting with George Washington, Walsh shows how Presidents and presidential candidates have repeated the same mistakes in dealing with the press from the beginning of the Republic. As the national media havegrown over time into a voracious beast demanding to be fed, they have lost sight of their fundamental mission of presenting the world in a straightforward and comprehensible way to viewers, listeners, and readers. Too often, Walsh asserts, the press suffers from four basic flaws: injecting too much attitude into stories, assuming an overly negative approach to all news, rushing to judgment, and ignoring the values of Middle America. Walsh is able not only to point out the chronic problems, but also to examine how this crucial nexus for an involved electorate has become so contaminated that ordinary citizens no longer trust either the media or their elected officials.
This keenly observed book, full of humorous and horrific inside stories, will spark debate inside and outside the Beltway about the government and the fourth estate and will force readers to examine who, if anyone, is being served by the current antagonism.
There are several problems with Walsh's chronicle of his ten years covering the presidency for U.S. News and World Report. Walsh remains on the beat and has been careful not to burn all his bridges. The result is a curious mix of unqualified criticism of people with whom he no longer has to deal (such as former Bush chief of staff John Sununu, whom Walsh accuses of "arrogance and condescension"), and excuses for the mistakes of sources still to be tapped (such as Hillary Clinton, blamed for much of the administration's mishandling of the press but forgiven as an "increasingly poignant figure"). Another problem is the danger of swift obsolescence in books attempting to be entirely up-to-the- minute. The danger for Walsh is compounded because nearly half of the book is devoted to the still-evolving Clinton presidency. And Walsh rationalizes the behavior of his press colleagues even as he concedes that "the media's cult of conflict and criticism has gone too far." But there is also much to recommend this book. Walsh is a good reporter who has the quotes and citations to support his thesis that presidents who feed the White House press corps (the "beast") will be rewarded in kind. He attributes Reagan's long honeymoon with the press to the nurturing given journalists by a savvy staff. Clinton, on the other hand, has been punished for surrounding himself with people who distrusted White House reporters and treated them shabbily. Walsh describes the immense role personalities play in shaping the portrait of the presidency presented to the American people, and many observers of the press will find his revelations interesting.
But one suspects that this book will become required reading only at the White House, where it will prove useful as a manual for staffers on the care and feeding of the media beast.
- Xlibris Corporation
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