By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink - 05/23/13 09:00 AM EDT
The White House admitted Wednesday that its handling of information about three big simultaneous scandals has produced justifiable press frustration and suspicion.
After tense and combative press briefings on Monday and Tuesday, press secretary Jay Carney took a different tack Wednesday, acknowledging there were “legitimate criticisms about how we’re handling this.”
Carney has been skewered over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups; the Department of Justice’s subpoenaing of phone records and labeling of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator; and the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
“They’re two steps away from causing harm to themselves,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University. “They’re digging themselves a pretty big hole, and the real question is, ‘Is Obama going to fall into it?’ ”
Carney’s shifting story on the IRS has become particularly problematic, as it suggests a focus on limiting exposure and aggressively fighting for news cycles.
“The first rule of crisis management is dump all the bad stuff out,” Berkovitz said.
“They’re stonewalling. The strategy seems to be to play the president as ignorant ... ‘Gee I didn’t know about that until I read about it in the newspaper.’ ”
That one of the three controversies damaging Obama deals directly with the press hasn’t helped.
Carney has struggled to defend Obama as a champion of a free press amid reports that his Justice Department subpoenaed the records of Rosen’s parents in searching for the source of a leak in national security information. The president’s past public criticism of Fox News has fed suggestions that Justice’s actions are targeting Obama’s opponents.
The inter-agency fight over the Benghazi talking points highlights the interests of different players in the administration to control the news story, even when their efforts are at cross purposes.
Carney sought Wednesday to explain and justify what the White House has been doing. He said the aim has been to provide a great deal of information quickly.
He said, “Our approach is, we get the information we have to you and, as we get more information, we fill in the details. And if it turns out that the information — new information we have requires a correction, we do that.”
The verbal jousting was less intense Wednesday, perhaps partly because it was Carney’s birthday.
One senior administration official said no previous administration has faced a media environment with a dozen news cycles a day. Neither has a past White House had to grapple with the mountain of documentation created by new technologies, where even casual email conversations and internal debates are documented, the official added.
In recent days, the White House has also solicited advice from a string of outside advisers to improve its message.
Tad Devine, a senior adviser to John Kerry and Al Gore, was one of a group of high-profile Democratic consultants who met last week with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
He said White House officials “spent most of the time soliciting input on how to handle” both the short-term controversies and long-term legislative goals.
Devine said the group largely told the White House to be as forthright and proactive as possible, noting the decision to release the full archive of emails related to Benghazi helped stymie the momentum the controversy had recently gained.
He said the White House indicated it hoped to focus on substantive policy issues to shift the narrative, saying McDonough said “they want to spend 90 percent of their time on issues that are key parts of the president’s agenda.”
Much of this focus has gained little attention.
A recent trip by Obama to Baltimore to discuss new infrastructure funding made few headlines, and his meeting young immigration reform activists on Tuesday was little-noticed.
Yet the White House has had some success in controlling the news.
In advance of Obama’s major address on the use of drones Thursday, a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to lawmakers was released that acknowledged four American citizens had been killed in drone attacks. The letter quickly dominated the news cycle.
Last week, Obama took to the podium to announce the acting IRS chief’s resignation just an hour after dumping the Benghazi documents. The actions ensured above-the-fold coverage of Obama’s actions on the IRS, while the Benghazi story was shifted downward.
At Thursday’s speech, Obama also will seize the opportunity to weigh in on Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records, according to one senior administration official.
Observers, including one former administration official, thinks it’s important that Obama use the speech to address mounting criticism over the move by the Justice Department.
“It’s a speech about national security and intelligence efforts, so why not address the leaks?” said one former administration official. “It will offer those who are concerned about it some reassurance that he’s on top of things and isn’t turning away from it.”