The Web site firstdogcharlie.com revealed the identity of the first family’s new dog on Saturday—three days in advance of the planned White House unveiling. This early disclosure undermined the Washington Post’s deal with the White House for exclusive puppy-related news. Why does the White House make exclusivity deals with particular news organizations?
To encourage favorable coverage or to pacify a reporter who feels slighted. Because the White House wants its side of the story told in a friendly tone, a news outlet that has been sympathetic to the president in the past might get an exclusive. Of course, no respectable news outlet would explicitly offer positive coverage in exchange for a scoop—there is never a quid pro quo. (Some magazines will, however, guarantee a cover story.) The White House might also treat a given news outlet to an exclusive to make up for perceived favoritism toward its rival. (This may have been the case with the first dog: The White House threw a bone to the Post to mollify them after the big vegetable garden exclusive went to the Times.)Finally, White House press officers sometimes grant exclusives because they are attempting to reach a particular audience. (When, for example, the White House wanted to communicate with young African-Americans about what it means to be a role model, Michelle Obama did an interview with Essence.)
The first-dog incident has offered a rare public glimpse into the deal-making process. Usually, the White House does not acknowledge exclusive news grants; the source simply conveys news to the reporter, who publishes immediately. The fact that other White House correspondents have been “scooped” is clear from the timing. However, in this case, the White House asked the Post to hold the story until a specified date (a so-called “news embargo“), then explicitly acknowledged the exclusivity deal after firstdogcharlie.com spilled the beans.
Although unusually public, the Bo exclusive is nothing new. President Eisenhower regularly passed news bits to Bob Donovan of the New York Herald Tribune because the paper was the national voice of moderate Republicanism. Many White House correspondents during the George W. Bush administration noted that the Washington Times, a relatively small conservative daily, got a disproportionate amount of exclusive news. Ike and W. both hoped their ideological brethren would present them in a favorable light. President Kennedy often passed exclusive news to a reporter for no other reason than friendship. He was famous for palling around with certain members of the White House news corps, particularly Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, who lived on the same Georgetown street as Kennedy during his Senate years. Many news outlets made the best of Kennedy’s habit by hiring and promoting reporters whom they perceived as close to the president.
Exclusive news offerings are not the same as leaks. In the former, the White House press office strategically manipulates media coverage. In the latter, rogue elements within the administration undermine its efforts. When a news outlet calls a story an “exclusive,” it is often referring to a leak. And many of the most famous exclusives of the 20th century, such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, were leaks. Even Alexander Hamilton, the great patriot and first treasury secretary, leaked information in an attempt to derail administration priorities.
Watch Bo’s first public appearance:
Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.
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Explainer thanks Evan Cornog of Columbia University, Stephen Hess of the Brooking Institution, and Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute.