Tony Snow Moves from Fox to the White House
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JEFFREY BROWN: When President Bush named 50-year-old Tony Snow as the new White House press secretary this morning, the press focused on: Mr. Snow’s FOX News credentials; his overall support but occasional public criticism of the Bush administration; his differences in style from his predecessor, Scott McClellan; and the actual role he’d be playing at the White House.
As to that role, the president put it simply.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: My job is to make decisions, and his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people.
JEFFREY BROWN: And here to help us explain the job and look at the new man in it is Martha Joynt Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University and author of the forthcoming book “Wired for Found and Pictures: Communicating from the White House.”
Welcome to you.
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR, Towson University: Hi, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were at the White House press room today as you often are. What was the reaction there?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Well, the reaction was that people wanted to know, why would Snow take the job?
JEFFREY BROWN: Why would he do it?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: It is a very tough job, because you have three constituents: the president, the White House staff, and the press. And you have to explain each to the other, and there is a great deal of suspicion from one to the other.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, most people see the press spokesman — they perhaps see one image of him, one sound bite a day, like on our news program. What does a press spokesman actually do all day?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Well, a press spokesman does more than just brief the press that once; he briefs them twice. There’s a morning meeting known as the gaggle that catches up with overnight events, and what the president’s schedule is going to be, and whether there are some new things on it.
But he also talks one-on-one with reporters throughout the day. He attends meetings. And that’s important, because you want the press secretary to be with the president and be able to talk to reporters about what it was the president said, not what somebody else said, but what the press secretary observed.
He also has to manage the relationship between the president and the White House staff and reporters, and that means things, such as recently McClellan has been involved in bringing reporters in on an off-the-record basis with the president so that they’ll get a better feel for who he is in a less formal circumstance.
It also means trying to persuade the president to have more press conferences. And since the election in 2004, the president has had many more solo press conferences on a regular basis than he had previously, but I think that probably takes a lot of persuasion to get him to do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, with the televising of the press briefing, with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, has the role changed or has it just become more visible?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: It has become more visible and a lot more difficult, because when there were two briefings a day by a press secretary, for a.m. and p.m. newspapers, he had news that he could hold for those two sessions.
But now there’s no news to give out in the afternoon briefing, because it’s already been given out during the day, either to individuals, news organizations, or to reporters in the morning meeting, so you have a televised session where you don’t have any news to give out. So that means that reporters are going to come in and try to pick at policies and perhaps bring in responses of what the Democrats have said about a particular thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: As we’ve seen recently, it’s become contentious at times and a good bit of theater.
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Right, that’s true. And there are a lot of people who come in, in the afternoon briefing, who are not there in the morning gaggle, because they want to talk about their own issues and questions, so it will be people who have their own policy agenda that they’ll come in with and ask questions that will highlight their particular issue. So the briefing has become a lot more complicated place.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it was reported today that Tony Snow, in taking this job, wanted to have a larger role, a kind of say at the table. Is there precedent for that?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: A policy role, their absolutely is not. And you don’t want a press secretary to be involved in policy, because if a press secretary is arguing policy, then, when he comes out and talks to reporters, reporters won’t know whether it’s the president’s policies that he’s talking about, the president’s thinking, or his own thinking.
And that sunk some press secretaries previously, so that absolutely is something to stay away from.
And also, within the White House, White House staff are not going to talk to the press secretary if they think he has a particular policy agenda. So I would say that’s something to absolutely stay away from.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, of course, it was also much noticed that Mr. Snow comes from a very public background. He’s been out there with his opinions. How unusual is that to bring in an outsider who very much has a public record?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Yes, that is unusual. And I think it’s unusual, too, to have both White House and press experience, to bring that in. And I think that’s going to be a benefit for him, that he knows the rhythms of the White House and he knows the rhythms of news organizations, who needs what when.
JEFFREY BROWN: He’s had experience in all kinds of — in newspapers, radio, television.
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Yes, and television, all of them, so he understands all of their rhythms, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And he knows how to — does that help him know how to speak to reporters?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Oh, I think that’s true. It does. And it will be easier for him to do the briefing.
But what you don’t want to have is that briefing become just a persuasion tool; you want it to be a place where solid information is given, as it has been in its long history.
JEFFREY BROWN: I know that you have been watching how this works in the communications area in the White House and the press for a long time now. How has it changed? I mean, what is different about the way, for example, the Bush White House operates, compared to the past?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Well, I think things are more similar than they are different, in that, if you look at Republican administrations, Republican administrations tend to focus a great deal on communications and have an organizational structure that’s headed by a communications czar, and then press sits under that, so that there’s a consistent kind of message that comes out, both at the White House and as administration, generally.
So I think that has been somewhat similar. Yes, they’ve been very tight and managed, more so than other administrations have been, but at this point, when they have to shake things up, then they’re, I think, looking for a more open relationship with the press.
JEFFREY BROWN: And as we were saying before, given the contentiousness that there has been now, or fairly recently, does Tony Snow come in and get any honeymoon?
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Well, I think, in the early days, people are going to want to know what kind of role he has. And I think he offered an olive branch himself this morning on his way out of the White House. He left not by a secret entrance of some sort or even the West Wing entrance; he came through the briefing room, and he stopped and talked to reporters.
And he indicated that he wanted to meet with them in small groups, to understand what it was they were interested in and what he could do for them.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, we’ll see what happens. Martha Joynt Kumar, thanks a lot.
MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: Thank you, Jeff.