White House uses 'minders' to prevent journalists from doing their jobs
Wednesday, February 02 @ 10:06:11 EST
By Paul Farhi, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
WASHINGTON - Reporters who cover the White House are accustomed to being spun by administration officials. The modern presidential toolbox includes carefully rationed news conferences, say-nothing spokesmen, dead-of-night releases of unfavorable news and phony "town hall" meetings composed solely of sycophantic supporters.
But now the art of press handling has evolved into actual manhandling. The Bush administration has expanded the use of "minders," government employees or volunteers who escort journalists from interview to interview within a venue or at a newsworthy event.
I was monitored for about half of the presidential party I covered for The Washington Post. For the first couple of hours of the Independence Ball, I roamed the Washington Convention Center hall dangerously unescorted.
I had arrived early to cover this quadrennial event and mingle among the roughly 6,000 people celebrating the president's re-election. Unaware of the new escort policy (it wasn't in place during the official parties in 2001), I blithely assumed that I was free to walk around at will and ask people such national security-jeopardizing questions as, "Are you having a good time?"
Big mistake. After cruising by the media pen -- a sectioned-off area apparently designed for corralling journalists -- a sharp-eyed volunteer spotted my media badge. "You're not supposed to go out there without an escort," she said.
I replied that I had been doing just fine without one, and walked over to a quiet corner to phone in some anecdotes.
As I was dictating from my notes, something flashed across my face and neatly snatched my cellphone from my hand. I looked up to confront a middle-aged woman, her face afire with rage.
"You ignored the rules, and I'm throwing you out!" she barked, snapping my phone shut. "You told that girl you didn't need an escort. That's a lie! You're out of here!"
With the First Amendment on the line, my natural wit did not fail me. "Huh?" I answered.
Recovering quickly, I explained that I been unaware of the escort policy. She ordered a couple of security guards to hustle me out. I appealed to them, saying that I was more than happy to follow whatever ground rules had been laid down. They shrugged and deposited me in the media pen.
There I was assigned a pair of attractive young women who, for the next hour or so, took turns following close at my heels.
They never interfered with my work. I found I was able to go wherever I wanted and to talk to whomever I desired. The minders just hovered nearby, saying nothing. They were polite but disciplined, refusing even to disclose their full names or details about themselves.
By about 10:15 p.m., long after President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had made their perfunctory appearances, a supervisor waved off the escorts and told them to go home.
Free at last! Feeling like a citizen of some newly liberated country, I immediately walked across the room to confront my cellphone snatcher. I told her what I thought -- at which point she ordered me thrown out again. I talked my way out of that, too.
I know: It's hard to work up a lot of sympathy for reporters trying to cover a party. I don't feel particularly sorry for me, either. But this isn't really about me. It's about … you.
Consider that the escorts weren't there to provide security; all of us had been through two checkpoints and one metal detector. They weren't there to keep me away from, heaven forbid, a Democrat or a protester; those folks were kept safely behind rings of fences and concrete barriers. Nor were the escorts there to admonish me for asking a rude question of the partying faithful, or to protect the paying customers from the prying media.
Their real purpose only occurred to me after I had gone home for the night, when I remembered a brief conversation with a woman I was interviewing. During the middle of our otherwise innocuous encounter, she suddenly noticed the presence of my minder. She stopped talking for a moment, glanced past me and then resumed talking.
The minders weren't there to monitor me. They were there to let the guests, my sources on inaugural night, know that any complaint, any unguarded statement, any off-the-reservation political observation, would be noted. But maybe someday they'll be monitoring something more important than an inaugural ball, and the source could be you.
I have a suggestion: As long as government officials are fixing up reporters with dates, I would be happy to be escorted by my wife. If they can't work that out, I wonder if they have any pull with Halle Berry.
Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Washington Post's Style section.
Reprinted from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: