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Friendly Fire in the White House

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
This post has been updated. --MTF

Criticisms of the White House press corps come fast and furious in MediaLand and Blogistan. (From accusations like they're 'an extension of the Clinton spin machine' to its 'meekness' in covering the Bush presidency.) But very rarely do they come from the White House press corps itself.

Until this week.

ABC's White House correspondent Martha Raddatz was the subject of a Washington Post profile by Howard Kurtz on Monday, where he detailed her ventures to Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A few paragraphs in, Raddatz tossed a bit of grenade at her friends and colleagues in the White House press corps – or, at the very least, the position of White House correspondent – when she said:

"I'd probably go crazy if I had to stay every second at the White House and not go out and be a reporter," she says by phone from Pakistan. "I don't want to be a stenographer."
From this writer's vantage point, Raddatz seemed to be implying that covering the White House was not quite the same as what she thought it mean to "be a reporter."

Needless to say, this wasn't taken well by some of those she sits with in the White House briefing room. So I reached out to a few reporters to see if anyone would go on the record to discuss Raddatz's quote.

I touched based with the Houston Chronicle's Julie Mason, who responded via e-mail:

It's only stenography if you make it that way. The White House is a very controlled environment; it can be quite opaque and yeah, very frustrating. I imagine it must be very disorienting after a war zone, or the Hill. But with apologies to Martha, who I respect and like, it's lazy to dismiss the beat as merely steno work. There are many reporters at the White House doing serious, important work in spite of the limitations. There is also a lot of humor and pathos in covering the president, and to call it merely stenography misses something. For reals.
CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller also sent an e-mail along, writing:
Sure, I view it as an insult if someone calls me a stenographer. Yes, I take careful notes on everything the President says. But my reports are far more than mere transcripts of those remarks. As a reporter, I boil his comments down to their essence, put them in context and challenge them for veracity.

If Raddatz gets cabin fever covering the President from the White House Press Room, I can understand that. But there's important reporting to be done here by those willing to endure what can, at times, be a tedious beat. But it's important work. Does anyone think we'd be better off if reporters didn't record, analyze and report what the President says and does. Taking accurate notes is part of our job, but that doesn't make us stenographers.

Having been inside the White House press room earlier in my career, I understand how it can sometimes feel like drudgery. Moving from one activity to another to watch what the president says – more often, what he avoids touching upon – and trying to get a question answered ain't the glamorous job you'd imagine it to be.

Sometimes your job feels routinized and a bit frustrating. But I'd venture to say that goes for everyone, regardless of profession. Calling it stenography, though, is like calling an airline pilot a button pusher or call this writer's work 'data entry.' (Go ahead comment board.) In its bleakest moments, sure, it can feel like that. But there's a lot more to it than checking 'sat at press conference; took notes' off your list.

UPDATE, 4:52pm: Public Eye received the following response from Martha Raddatz:

A friend just pointed out your blog to me and I have to say I was a bit surprised. Maybe it was jet lag, but it never occurred to me that voicing my personal concerns about ME becoming a stenographer (and come on guys, half jokingly) would reflect badly on my colleagues. Far from it. I have enormous respect for the White House press corps. Apologies to those who took that description as anything but a reflection on my own personal whip-cracking.
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