Two weeks after his now-celebrated blow-up with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, NBC-TV’s David Gregory and his behavior at an early morning briefing (gaggle) are still the subjects of controversy.
At the first session between McClellan and the White House press corps following reports of Vice President Cheney’s accidental shooting of a hunting buddy in Texas, an exasperated Gregory admonished the President’s top spokesman: “Don’t be a jerk to me.”
McClellan had told Gregory to settle down because “the cameras aren’t on yet” (the gaggles are informal, not televised, and transcripts are difficult to get). At the afternoon session later that day (February 13), which was televised, Gregory maintained his take-no-prisoners approached and at one time snapped to McClellan’s response to a query about Cheney: “Oh, come on!” For the remainder of the week, NBC’s chief White House correspondent was nowhere to be seen at any of McClellan’s briefings, the network’s Kelly O’Donnell covering for Gregory.
Gregory’s brass-knuckled dealings with McClellan raise serious questions about the relationship between reporters and spokesmen. Is there a line to be drawn between vigorous pursuit of a subject and respect for the official voice? Was Gregory an intrepid journalist, or just out of line, in the way he treated McClellan? As one White House correspondent. I can say that the topic of his behavior was discussed intently for days among our colleagues and, without naming names, I can say sentiment was strong that Gregory went too far.
Pursuit of a story and intense questioning is one thing. There are White House correspondents, print and electronic journalists both, who will ask hard-hitting questions and follow-up questions that spokesman McClellan is clearly uncomfortable with. (When I pressed him once about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s criticism of the Administration’s policy toward Iran, a somewhat irritated McClellan replied that “I reject your characterization” of the Administration on Iran—even though I was only citing what Gingrich had criticized). But using names, invective,and sarcasm is another area—and it’s downright rude.
To be sure, Gregory appeared with Cheney associate Mary Matalin on a Sunday talk show following the exchange and expressed some regret over how he had handled himself. But it was a qualified regret; when HUMAN EVENTS questioned NBC about the incident, spokeswoman Barbara Levin told us: “His job is to ask tough questions. And his only interest is to get answers to those questions.”
That’s light years removed from the approach of John Roberts, until recently CBS-TV’s correspondent at the White House. On October 31, after Samuel Alito was named to the Supreme Court, Roberts opened the gaggle with a reference to just-withdrawn court nominee Harriet Miers that could only be called double entendre.
Although the gaggles are informal and their transcripts usually held tight to the White House vest, Matt Drudge had Roberts’ words online by mid-morning and the criticism hit the CBS reporter like shrapnel. That afternoon, Roberts prefaced his question to McClellan with “on the subject speaking of rude, my apologies for my unfortunate choice of words this morning to you.” McClellan smiled and told Roberts he had a “mulligan” (golfing term for a fresh swing). Case closed.
John Roberts’ dealings with controversial behavior as a White House correspondent is moving to any of us who have regretted saying something we should not have. And it’s classy.