‘Social contract broken’ say White House press pros

by Rebecca Dow and Megan Twitchell

The social contract between the presidency and the press has been broken, according to former CBS radio White House correspondent Peter Maer and former Assistant Press Secretary Bruce Zanca.

“There’s a vitriolic intention in Washington,” said Zanca.

Maer and Zanca were speaking to The Presidency and the Press, a group of students attending a program at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, on Sunday.

The administration has sought to redefine the rules of engagement, according to Maer. They’re “declaring war on reporters,” he said. 

“Spokespeople are repeatedly hung out to dry and the rules are changing daily,” Maer said, “This never would have happened under [press secretaries] Marlin Fitzwater or Mike Mccurry.” 

Zanca explained that there is an unwritten social contract between the spokesperson and the press. He said the spokesperson’s job is to steer the press in their inquiry to avoid misunderstanding.

On the other side of the interview, Maer cited Jeff Manson, president of the White House Correspondents Association, who said, “The job of the reporters is do their job.” Their job, Maer said, is to deliver the truth.

Zanca stressed the importance of clarifying what is on and off the record before the interview.

Without that clarification reporters assume everything is on the record, Maer said.

“On background” means that everything can be quoted or attributed to an unnamed source, such as a “senior government official,” he said. Officials often want to reveal information without “stealing the thunder” of their bosses.

“Off the record” information cannot be used. The spokesperson would like to share knowledge but cannot be identified as the source.

“If you cannot have it in said on the news, don’t say it,” said Zanca. “There is no true ‘off the record.’”

The agreement of what is on and off the record is key to the mutual respect that has always marked the relationship between the presidency and the press.

Both Maer and Zanca acknowledged that the current press secretary has an adversarial relationship with the press, but did not place the blame on his office. Zanca said that Sean Spicer has been put into an impossible situation.

In previous administrations, a president would never directly contradict the words of his press secretary.

“We live in a problematic time,” said Zanca. “Policy is driven from the top.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *