Already beset with a reputation for manipulating media and "fearing" coverage, the White House had a match tossed into its communications department Thursday when a local TV reporter aired an apparent claim that reporters routinely submit their questions in advance of the daily presidential press briefing.
By the time talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh picked up the story, Obama Press Secretary Jay Carney and some reporters in the White House press pool were denying the claim by Catherine Anaya of KPHO-TV in Phoenix, the local CBS affiliate.
Limbaugh declared "this is the kind of thing that upsets the soap opera narrative inside the Beltway."
After airing clips of her broadcast and weighing her story against the denials, Limbaugh noted that Anaya seemed "star struck" by her visit and "didn't sound capable of making something up, or inventing it."
He characterized the reporter as "just ignorant enough to be trusted."
"She either misunderstood what she saw or misunderstood what she was told," Limbaugh said. "But, even when she was telling the story, 'Oh, yeah, and sometimes the press secretary gets the questions in advance" – as if there's nothing wrong with that, by the way – she didn't sound like she thought anything wrong about that. She's just fascinated at how it all works."
The talk host predicted Anaya would soon be pressured to retract her story.
"I predict it'll be by 1 p.m. Eastern Time, 22 minutes, and she will have been pressured enough into saying she misunderstood," he said. "I mean, they're gonna hold her career in the balance here, 'cause they can't allow this to stand, that they submit their questions in advance and that Carney then picks the one he wants, and that they get their answers in advance. They can't let this stand, even if it isn't true."
Sure enough, when Anaya arrived back in Phoenix Thursday, she walked parts of her story back in an email to the London Daily Mail.
Nevertheless, she insisted, the London paper said, that she herself was asked to submit a question in advance for Carney on Wednesday afternoon.
Whatever the case, her story has gained traction at a time when it's hard to imagine there are many reporters left who still believe that Obama has a good chance to fulfill his prediction that he would have the most transparent administration in history.
In November, for example, news organizations filed a formal complaint with the White House charging the administration was “bypassing them to release ‘official’ photos of presidential meetings and events." The “visual press releases,” the complaint said, have displaced independent coverage.
This week, reporters are forbidden from traveling with first lady Michelle Obama, her two daughters and mother on their six-day trip to China at taxpayer expense. Instead, visitors to WhiteHouse.gov are encouraged to sign up for the first lady's blog posts, videos and photos of the trip.
In 2009, the White House gave a reporter with the left-leaning Huffington Post a heads-up the night before a press conference with President Obama that he might be called on. The next day, he got the second question, after the Associated Press.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the decision to bar reporters on the first lady's China trip this week "a mistake," saying it "signals weakness or fear of coverage."
'One of the things that I found most interesting'
Anaya, who was at the White House Wednesday for a special media day for local reporters, said in a live KPHO report summarizing her experience that the day began shortly after 8 a.m. with an informal, off-the-record session in the West Wing with Carney.
"He talked basically about how he gets his day started, all of the information that he needs to be aware of in case he's asked from reporters or correspondents about certain things in the daily press briefing," Anaya told her Phoenix audience.
Then came the part that thrust her into the national spotlight.
"But one of the things that I found most interesting is that the reporters and correspondents, unless it's breaking news, they provide the questions to him in advance, and so he is already preparing for the answer," she said.
In some cases, Anaya added, "he actually prepares that answer for them, so he can have that to work on their reports later on."
Listen to Limbaugh's take on the story:
The initial walk-back came in a statement attributed to Anaya that was issued by KPHO-TV on its website. But the statement was quickly withdrawn, the Daily Mail reported.
The statement said:
It seems much had been inferred about my observations following my White House visit yesterday.
First, I did not take notes during our coffee with Jay Carney because it was off the record. But when I referenced the meeting in my live reports I did say that it was a great opportunity to talk about the challenges of his day and how he has to be so well-versed on many topics each day.
In my live report I also wanted to share my impression of my experience in getting a question answered during the briefing. I was indeed asked to provide my question in advance. Because my question was largely of local interest, I chose to save it for my interview with the President instead.
My mistake was to lump that experience with my coffee meeting reference, inadvertently giving Mr. Carney credit for that when in fact it did not come from him. I regret giving anyone the impression that it was from conversation I had with Mr. Carney.
I do not attend those briefings regularly and cannot speak directly to the process for non-visiting journalists.
None of my observations stemmed from my off-the-record meeting with Jay Carney.
KPHO Assignment Editor Scott Davis explained to the Daily Mail that it "apparently ... was not the correct statement."
Anaya told the London paper that as "a local journalist I had no issue providing my proposed question in advance, because I wanted to make sure it was an appropriate question for a national briefing and I wanted to make sure it was appropriate for Mr. Carney."
'[B]ut in discussing it with a staff member the night before, we decided I would save it for the president. I was attempting to not waste national time on a local question, but in my attempt at explaining that I unintentionally made it sound like that experience applied to everyone," she said.
"That is my mistake, and I own up to it."
Now, KPHO has posted a new statement from Anaya in which she contends "the White House never asked me for questions in advance."
She concludes: "I did not attribute or report factually last night and for that I deeply apologize. I pride myself on truth and objectivity. I sincerely regret any harm I've caused and I hope that you will continue to place your trust in the hardworking journalists who make up CBS 5 News."
Inside the sausage factory
On his show Thursday afternoon, Limbaugh also noted Anaya reported that she was given a strict four minutes to conduct her interview with the president.
Anaya, Limbaugh said, had "an Obama aide lurking nearby, but off camera, attempting to intimidate the reporter to stay on schedule."
"And in order to prevent anybody getting comfortable, the anchor must stand up. The reporter must stand up during the interview, and it's four minutes. Get in, get it, and get out. "Wham, bam, thank you, Mr. President," and then on to the next one. Four minutes."
Limbaugh described Anaya's report as an opportunity to "go inside the media sausage factory."
He concluded the segment noting Anaya told her audience that the session with Carney was off-the-record, yet "she revealed everything that was said."
"She's just star-struck, I think," he said. "She was just totally overcome with where she was and how big a career opportunity that it was."