Democracy in the White House Press Room

Less than one week after he delivered his first briefing to reporters in the White House press corps, Jay Carney is being increasingly contrasted rather than compared with his predecessor, former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

At the briefing yesterday afternoon, Carney seemed to be subtly acknowledging some of the criticism that those who cover the White House repeatedly made of Gibbs during his two years at the podium.  Where Gibbs seemed to focus on the front row (which includes wire services and television network correspondents), and once took as many as eight questions from a single correspondent sitting there, Carney, a former Time magazine bureau chief, moved quickly and with ease almost to the back of the James Brady Briefing Room.

“You can sure get a lot of questions in from reporters when you don’t take five minutes to answer,” one journalist remarked in a not-so-subtle reference to Gibbs’ tendency to give not-quite-brief answers and thus limit the number of questions at his briefings.  (Llewellyn King of TV’s “White House Chronicle” may have put it most succinctly when he described Gibbs as being “garrulous without being  informative.”)

Foreign correspondents have long complained that they are treated shabbily by administration spokespeople, sometimes ignored completely during official briefings.  This is particularly painful now, with Barack Obama an inarguably fascinating American President in many foreign capitals, and with more foreign correspondents covering the White House than ever before.

Yesterday Carney called on reporters from Mexico, Canada, and the Middle East.  He even took two questions from the irrepressible Raghubir Goyal of India, a fixture in the White House press room characterized for years by his propensity to work India and Pakistan into every query.  (True to form, Goyal asked about the Middle East and—you guessed it—India).

Carney moved briskly from opening remarks on the administration’s decision not to continue legal backing of the Defense of Marriage Act to the possibility of a government shutdown to the most-asked-about topic of all, Libya.  From the approving nods, it seemed as though Carney was satisfying his audience—or at least not upsetting it with “non-answers.”

Although I was in the fourth row, Carney called on me relatively quickly in the 45-minute session.

“Let me pick on some folks that I haven’t,” he said, pointing at me.  “Yes, sir.”

For my first question to the sixth press secretary I have covered as a White House correspondent, I followed up on a question Fox News’ Wendell Goler had asked earlier about the Libyan opposition to the embattled tyrant Muammar al-Gaddafi, namely, how much influence he felt the U.S. had with the the opposition.  (Carney had said that the U.S. would enunciate “our clear principles” and show that the “drivers of change” are the people and that “there should not be any kind of use of violence against peaceful protesters.”)

My question was whether the administration had had a dialogue, either through a back channel or more publicly, with any of the international opposition or expatriate groups who have been speaking out against Col. Gaddafi for years.

“I actually will direct you to the State Department on that,” Carney told me.  “I don’t have anything about our engagement at that level, but perhaps the State Department does.”

So far, the administration has yet to identify any Gaddafi opposition groups it has had meetings with or is talking to.

But today, the major story to come out of the White House briefing was Jay Carney himself.  Walking with me after the briefing, one colleague seems to have summed up the President’s second press secretary well:  “So far, so good.”