Tony Snow, the Fox News talking head and presumptive White House press secretary, already has a nickname among some members of the Washington press corps: “Max Headroom.”
Mr. Snow, in other words, is wholly a creature of television—the first TV personality to become a lead White House spokesman.
“It’s sort of the obvious elevation of style over substance,” said Julie Mason, a White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. “Not that he doesn’t have substance, but they do seem to be going with flash over someone who’s a little wonkier. Usually that’s done in a more sleight-of-hand, subtext way, not like, ‘Here’s a guy with great hair.’”
But daily White House press briefings are now live broadcasts, carried on C-Span, picked up on cable news channels, rerun on the evening news and frequently given a final airing on The Daily Show. So why not have a TV guy anchor them?
Great hair—thick, fluffy, a graying Ken doll’s hair—is just one of Mr. Snow’s broadcast virtues. A former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and a popular radio host, he is full of Southern charm and colorful language. On his April 19 show, Mr. Snow said that in dealing with the media, the exiting White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, “has been clubbed like a baby seal.”
The untelegenic Mr. McClellan, his hair in retreat, was the inheritor of a tradition that began in 1937, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired journalist Stephen Tyree Early to be the first Presidential press secretary. Subsequent secretaries tended to be print reporters as well, though political operatives and close friends of Presidents took a share of the positions in recent decades. A few of them—including Kennedy-Johnson spokesman Pierre Salinger and his fellow Johnson spokesman Bill Moyers—went on to distinguished careers in broadcasting after their runs in the press office. Mr. Snow, if he takes the job, would be the first to go in the opposite direction.
“A big part of the job is appearing on TV,” said Clinton administration press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Although Ms. Myers said she wouldn’t have predicted Mr. Snow for the job, she said the choice would make sense. “Tony has television presence,” she said. “He has a lot of experience with television and radio.”
Ms. Myers herself didn’t need much TV presence. Till the mid 90’s, TV played only a limited part in the press briefings. Camera crews were invited to tape the first five minutes of the session, and were then ushered out of the room with a short segment to be deployed on the evening news.
But then, in 1995, a pair of radio reporters told Ms. Myers’ successor, Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, that they needed a recording of the full briefing. Mr. McCurry obliged by opening the whole session to cameras.
Mr. McCurry said he never anticipated the effect his decision would have on the briefing room. “It has become a theater instead of a place where news gets committed,” he said.
Nor did he anticipate the effect on the press secretary. “He has become a daytime soap-opera star,” Mr. McCurry said.
And that soap runs live on cable.
“It really doesn’t give the viewer the opportunity to get the advantage of the filter of journalism,” Mr. McCurry said. “Sometimes that harsh questioning by David Gregory is really aimed at testing how sensitive the White House is on the subject. That’s a reportorial technique.”
Before the age of full-time cameras, the briefings tended to be more collegial affairs.
Now, “you walk in and hear, ‘Is so-and-so carrying this live?’, ‘Is so-and-so carrying this live?’” said ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. “Some of my colleagues will drag in in jeans or cutoff shorts or something, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Don’t you realize we’re on national TV?’”
“There’s no question the presence of the cameras changes the dynamic,” said Mark Smith, a White House correspondent for Associated Press Television and Radio and the president of the White House Correspondents Association. “It raises the temperature on both sides. I think reporters are conscious that there’s a large audience watching us ask questions, but the White House people also don’t want to let anything go unchallenged.”
“There is now a great deal more public scrutiny of the process,” said NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, whose recent on- and off-camera tiffs with Mr. McClellan have earned him some notoriety (and an occasional comparison to Sam Donaldson). “People are now paying attention to our questions and their answers equally. I think that’s the wrong approach.”
Mr. Smith noticed that Mr. McClellan has a habit of repeating his talking points far more frequently than past press secretaries—on the theory, Mr. Smith suggested, “that, ‘O.K., it’s 15 minutes into the briefing, and maybe new people have tuned in, and we need to say it again.’”
Mr. McClellan seems to bristle at the presence of the cameras, but he is always aware of them, correspondents said. His TV-ready run-ins with the press corps are all part of the public-relations battle. Handle the reporters well, and they look disrespectful and querulous. Handle them poorly, and the secretary looks smug.
The consciousness about the cameras extends even to when the cameras aren’t rolling. In an off-air morning press gaggle after Vice President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident, Mr. Gregory accused Mr. McClellan of “ducking and weaving” on the subject of the shooting.
“David, hold on … the cameras aren’t on right now,” Mr. McClellan said. “You can do this later.”
“Don’t accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras,” Mr. Gregory replied. “Don’t be a jerk to me personally when I’m asking you a serious question.”
Mr. Gregory insisted the press conferences have not become a “made-for-TV event” and said he held out hope that the hiring of Mr. Snow, if it goes through, will usher in an era of better press–White House relations. He then admitted that might be wishful thinking.
“If they do wind up with Tony Snow or somebody else who’s had television experience, I guess that will make some difference,” said longtime CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante. “But I don’t know how much difference it can really make, unless they’re willing to change the message. I don’t care how you wrap it, if it’s the same old you-know-what, people are going to see it as that, even with a different M.C.”
The apparent new M.C. has some old-fashioned political connections—principally a close friendship with new White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten. And while he hasn’t racked up Peabodys during his decade at Fox News, he has been a loyal soldier in the Roger Ailes army. In 1996, he helped Mr. Ailes launch the Fox News Channel’s first original news program, Fox News Sunday—which he hosted, to low ratings and little acclaim, for seven years. He then moved on to radio, while continuing to make appearances on the cable channel.
On the radio, on April 19, Mr. Snow offered his own take on Mr. McClellan’s performance. “Good on Scott McClellan for being a class act,” he said. “One could show a sense of temper on things like this, and he hasn’t.”