NEWS ANALYSIS : White House Gets Its Act Together With the Media

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The White House briefing room was full. At the podium, two senior Administration officials were outlining for the press corps the President's controversial new policy on gays in the military.

The briefing was detailed and helpful. Officially, it was also tentative because it came four days before the Administration would formally announce its intention to ease the ban on homosexuals in the services.

Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, two other senior Administration officials, an assistant secretary of defense involved in negotiating the plan and a top Pentagon lawyer were offering the Defense Department press corps a similar briefing. This one walked reporters step by step through the entire negotiating process that led to the new policy.

Later, another senior Administration official personally telephoned a few key journalists to explain Secretary of Defense Les Aspin's thinking on the matter.

The efforts to brief members of the Washington media last week was a stroke of deft press management and a sign of change in the newly reorganized Clinton White House.

By delaying a formal announcement of the gays-in-the-military plan until last Monday, the Administration made sure that the weekend talk show pundits could not focus on the subject with any certainty. Yet by briefing reporters in advance, the White House was able to control much of the interpretation of a complex and politically fragile new policy.

By Tuesday, the Administration had managed remarkably favorable press coverage for what had been perhaps its most enduring political embarrassment until then--its fumbled management of the gays-in-the-military issue.

"Chiefs Back Clinton on Gay-Troop Plan" read the New York Times headline. "A Step For Gay Soldiers but Not For Gay Rights," read the Los Angeles Times.

"Politically it couldn't have been better if they had written those headlines themselves," one White House reporter confessed the next day.

A marked shift has occurred in the tone of the Clinton Administration's press coverage. Unlike the early days, when the new President's advisers complained about a steady stream of "negative" news stories emanating from a hostile Washington press corps, the treatment nowadays, all sides would agree, is more "positive."

Is that simply because the President is doing better at his job? Or has a renovated White House communications machine, under newly appointed presidential counselor David Gergen, done a better job of getting its message across? Or is it simply that an easily bored press corps has succumbed to its own need to change the story line every few months?

Journalists and White House officials acknowledge that the answer is a bit of all three, conceding, in effect, that what political professionals like to call "good media" is more than just a result of good policy.

Gergen arrived at the White House in June and quickly reorganized the media operation, naming Mark D. Gearan as communications director in place of Clinton campaign wizard George Stephanopoulos, under whose leadership press relations had soured.

He then made other crucial changes that might help explain the apparent success of the new White House media team.

Gergen and Gearan now bring senior policy advisers into the press room to help brief White House reporters on complicated issues--something of a rarity under Stephanopoulos, who tried to handle many questions himself but often yielded information sparingly.

Gearan also makes an effort to call reporters back more promptly, in time to meet their deadlines. Under Stephanopoulos, return calls generally came after deadline or on the following day. Routinely, his aides were tied up in late-afternoon meetings with him, just when reporters needed information most urgently.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers is now included in the President's daily morning meeting with senior staff members, enabling her to respond more knowledgeably to questions from reporters.

"We used to call Dee Dee and hope that someone higher would call us back too, which didn't usually happen," said one White House reporter. "Now when Dee Dee calls us back, that is often sufficient, which is a significant difference."

"We had left the impression that we didn't care much about the White House press corps, especially print reporters," said one senior White House official. "That wasn't true, but that was the impression. We have tried to change that."

Finally, the President himself is spending more time with reporters, hosting luncheons, dinners, even picnics on the White House lawn. That allows reporters to see his human side and enables them to hear his reasoning first-hand.

In a recent TV appearance, Washington Post columnist David Broder said that while he still harbors doubts about Clinton's leadership skills, he was been impressed by the sophistication of the dialogue during a recent visit with the President.

The Clinton team has become more willing to admit mistakes as well. "You learn from experience," Gearan said. "Like anything, there is a natural way of meeting people and learning what works and what doesn't."

Both reporters and White House officials also say they think that in addition to being more helpful and more competent at explaining their policies, the Administration has benefited from the cyclical nature of the media.

The media abhors stasis and enjoys change. By May, the press coverage of Clinton had become so negative that many reporters acknowledged they were ready for a shift in tone.

"There is an impulse at those points to break out from the pack with a new insight," said Reuters White House reporter Gene Gibbons.

Privately, White House aides say they sense those rhythms and try to provide what some Clinton staff members call a "pivot point" for the press--a turning point to hang that new insight on.

NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said the Clinton team provided a pivot point when it issued its internal investigation into the White House travel office fiasco.

That frank report, which harshly criticized the conduct of several key White House staff members in firing office workers and replacing them with Clinton friends, "was as self-critical as any White House document I have ever seen," Miklaszewski said, and it represented an apparent shift in attitude for a White House that had been developing a reputation for thinking it could spin--or explain its way out of--anything.

Some White House reporters, such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times, say they believe, however, that all the talk about press management misses the point. If the Administration is getting better press, Friedman said, it is because it is doing a better job. "I believe in substance. The substance has changed. The reality has changed. We have just reflected that," he said.

Yet when pressed, even Friedman acknowledges that doing a better job of explaining itself helps the Administration, and an inability to get its message across can become an issue unto itself.

In a town sensitive to press coverage, a President's ability to get things done is often enhanced by positive coverage in the Washington Post and elsewhere.

But few would go as far as one slightly jaded magazine reporter: "Why are they getting better press?" he said. "David Gergen."

Then he imitated Gergen's tone in interviews and on the phone with hungry reporters. "You got enough? You got everything you need? You need anything else?"

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