A Missing Hand in the Pool

By Sabrina Treitz

It’s a hand raised in the air.  Followed by another.  And another.  And a forth, fifth, sixth.  These hands vie for the attention of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the person who ultimately decides when a reporter gets to pose a question.  But one particular hand is no longer lifted in this cloister of journalists gathered in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, and it is this same hand that is typically allowed to go first. Ben Feller, staking claim for the Associated Press as chief White House correspondent, no longer sits front row center on a blue leather seat.

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Ben Feller, former chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press.

Ben Feller has been looking for a job.  For the first time in twenty years, he is not a reporter.

He now works at Mercury Public Affairs as a leader of media strategies, where he is using the same tools he acquired as a journalist but for a difference purpose: advocacy for the client. “There’s a lot to be said about the appeal of challenging yourself,” he says, and he climbed a mountain, conquered it, did it well, and found himself ready to face another.

At the end of last year two things were happening at once for Feller: his wife promoted at the New York Times, and the close of President Obama’s first term marked roughly six years for Feller covering the White House.  “I had sort of used 2012 as a time to decide ‘what do I want to do next?’” said Feller.  “Do I want to stay on and cover a new president if Romney won, or do I want to stay and cover a second term with Obama?”

Feller, who was hired on full-time at Centre Daily Times in 1993 before he graduated from Penn State, says one reporting job led to the next all the way up to the White House, and when Obama’s first term was up, it became apparent he was ready for something different, something new.  And so he left the White House beat.  This led him to New York.

There’s a lot of shuttling back and forth between New York and Washington for many journalism couples, and Feller was adamant about staying in the same city with his wife and their 21-month-old son.  Here in New York, he hoped to find work that would keep him interested and fulfilled.  There in Washington, he had reached the point he says everybody reaches, where he had to decide if his interest outweighed the trade-offs of the job.  “It became a point where even presidential interviews, trips around the country, trips around the world, they were important stories and interesting stories,” he said, “but they were versions of stories that I had already covered.”

Moving on has been a pattern in Feller’s career.  He takes a job, dives in, and ultimately looks for something new to challenge him.  Working on local government beats in State College led to a medium-sized newspaper in North Carolina, the News & Record, where he focused more on government and politics.  That led him to think about a bigger market, a bigger paper, a bigger challenge, and a higher salary.  He eventually landed himself in Florida at The Tampa Tribune as an education reporter, immersing himself in politics at the stateside level.  Finally, when the AP had an opening covering K-12 education, the next phase of his reporting happened in Washington.

There were a lot of firsts happening at once for Feller in 2003.  “It was my first time writing for a national audience, first time covering Washington—so learning the intersection of cabinet and agency like the Department of Education and Congress, how decisions are made, the White House was involved in that—but also remembering that the stories are for the whole country.”

Relocating allowed him an understanding of how things move through Washington. He also learned how different the AP is from other newspapers.  He found demands are heavier, and stories are constantly being updated—he notes that this is more the norm now that everyone is doing things in real time, but when he took the position, he was used to publications where you gathered and then wrote the story.  Now demands came in from editors all around the world at all different hours.

At the end of Feller’s run on the education beat, there opened a job covering the White House.  He had previously filled in on presidential trips, so once the position opened, then-White House editor Terry Hunt and bureau chief Sandy Johnson hired him.  To some, it was surprising that Feller went from covering education to covering the White House, and they asked, ‘Why did they pick the education guy?’  It moved away from the tradition of coming off a campaign or covering the Hill and then making your way to the White House.

“The AP just looked at it and still does in a much more holistic fashion, which is ‘who are our best people?’, and then they learn the beat,” said Feller.  Editors at the AP liked keeping reporters on their toes.  One way to do that was to move people around, challenging them to learn new subjects and develop new sources.  Hunt and Johnson, in this case, knew Feller knew how to report, could gain the trust of sources, could tell stories quickly and accurately, and he could play well with others in the small, competitive environment that is the White House.

The White House beat is an extraordinary beat for a journalist, says Feller, because there’s a built in premise that what you’re covering affects so many people.  That appealed to him for a long time because “it’s the president, and everything important comes through the White House.”  When you’re a correspondent for the AP, Feller says you sign up for the fact that your schedule is the president’s schedule.  “Wherever he goes, the AP goes,” he said, and though it’s not always the same AP reporter, you agree to always be in a pool that could be pulled from at any time.

Once Feller got over what he defines as the shock and terror of becoming a White House correspondent, he realized he had done a version of this before.  However, he needed to learn how to process information quickly, ask the right questions—questions that cut away the fat—and discover who the real influencers and decision makers were and gain their trust.  Preparing for scheduled events later in the week began by studying up on the issues involved, and it required getting smart in a hurry.  As Feller said, “You do that, you absorb it, and you move on, and you move on, and you move on.”

There was no how-to guide at Feller’s disposal.  “You just figure it out,” says Feller.  “That’s so much of the job; you figure it out.”  He remembers watching Hunt, senior White House correspondent at the time, in those early days and learning how he managed his time, who he talked to, and how he prepared a question to ask.  He was also interested in the process of taking newsworthy information on different topics and turning it into a smart, crisp story that was compelling for the whole country.

Some of the knowledge he gathered was granular.  Feller asked Nedra Picker, whom he was replacing, and Deb Riechmann to walk him through who everyone was in the press office.  They, declined, citing how small the place was and promising to introduce him once he started.  Feller, however, wanted to know ahead of time.

“So I took ‘em out for drinks and as of, like, a price of admission they said ‘OK, well here’s the young aide, who is the guy who’s gonna make sure you get into the vans, and he doesn’t know anything about policy, he’s never a spokesman, but he’s the handler, and he’s a nice guy.  Now here’s the woman, who does this, and you gotta watch for her because she can be prickly, but she can be helpful on certain days.  And once you get to the upper crest, here are the two people who are under the press secretary, and the best time to catch them…’”

When Picker rejoined the team after Feller left, their story went full circle.  She called him for advice on how he covered the beat and sources.  The only difference as Feller states is “I didn’t make fun of her the way she did me.”

As a different term brings in a new school of journalists to the beat so does the coexistence between the president and the press corps see change, says Colleen Nelson, White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.  Nelson, herself, is a freshmen within the ranks of the corps, ushered in with the 2013 inauguration.

Survival 101 as told by veteran White House correspondents is locating the presidential candy stash.  “If you’re on Air Force One, make sure to ask for the M&Ms because they have boxes of M&Ms with the presidential seal on them,” was the advice Nelson was given as a newcomer to the beat.

No matter being on Air Force One hundred of times, it never got old to Feller, who calls it the White House on wheels.  “The thing about Air Force One,” he says, “is that you can never miss the plane.  Rule number one at the AP:  don’t be late for the plane, and I wasn’t.”

His second time aboard Air Force One, filling in for an AP White House correspondent on an trip to Dover, a story was unfolding in Washington.  An Arab company wanted to take over security at six major U.S. ports.  Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, letting a non-american company have that much control over domestic security was called into question.

President Bush felt strongly that this debate was discriminatory and didn’t like how it was playing out in Washington.  He then went completely off message on this trip and did something the White House never does.  Instead of the Press Secretary coming back to the press cabinet, one of Bush’s handlers came back, and the members of the press corp suddenly found themselves in the president’s conference room at the front of the plane.

Bush was waiting for them, looking as the reporters filed into the room and greeting them.  As Feller remembers, “He got to me, and his eyes looked right at me—I was at the other end of the table at this point, and this was President Bush-—he said, ‘Don’t I know you?’  I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m Ben Feller with the Associated Press,’ and he said, ‘Oh, hi, Ben.  Why don’t you come sit up next to me?  The AP likes to sit up top.’”  The president proceeded to then issue a strident statement about why the debate was unfair and defended the ability of a company to come do business in America regardless of its background.  When it came time to ask questions, Feller went first.

“Well, you’ve made your point to us, but what do you say to Congress and to the members of your own party, who oppose what you just said?”

“Well, they ought to listen to me also, and if they don’t, if they pass a law, I’ll veto it.”

In that same moment, he called the members of the press corps up and gave a statement, which in and of itself was newsworthy, and then issued a veto threat in response to Feller’s question.  For Feller, “It was a good day’s work.”

That experience of thinking quick on his feet went a long way for Feller.  When you are reporting at the highest level, he stresses how it is important to always be on mentally and ready to deliver.  Those skills folded in with consistency, the not-so-secret ingredient, make for Feller’s recipe for success.  “If your performance is consistent,” said Feller, “you will be successful in your coverage.”

This helped him get the full-time job.

Feller continued to prove he was worth taking a shot on time after time.  In his reporting, he was always considering issues important to the American people.  When the NFL was about to shut down, Feller asked President Obama if he would step in to help.  With the fate of the season called into question, many American businesses also stood to be affected in 12-hours time.  Feller, however, knew this issue could not come before a big foreign policy question, so he issued a two-parter and hoped to get a laugh out of the president.

“Ben Feller, AP,” announced President Obama.

“Thank you very much, Mr. President,” said Feller.  “I have a question for both presidents”—President Obama held a joint press briefing with President Calderón of Mexico— “and in your case, sir, it’s a classic two-parter.”

The president responded and laughed, “With the follow-up, so I get a three-parter?”

After asking the president if he feared the situation in Libya was heading towards “a bloody stalemate,” Feller moved on to sports.

“The other topic is quite different but something that matters to millions of Americans.  The National Football League is on the brink of a complete shutdown as of tonight over a labor dispute.  Obviously, that’s an economic issue for cities but also something that a lot of people just care about, and I’m wondering if that is something you’d be willing to personally intervene on, and if not, why not?”

“Let me deal with football first,” said the President.  “You’ve got owners, most of whom are worth close to a billion dollars.  You’ve got players, who are making millions of dollars.  My working assumption at the time, when people are having to cut back, compromise, and worry about making the mortgage and playing for their kid’s college education, is that the two parties should be able to work it out without the President of the United States intervening.  I’m a big football fan, but I also think that for an industry that’s making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money they’re making.  So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening because it turns out I’ve got a lot of other stuff to do.”

“The whole place, if you really step back from it, is surreal because it’s the White House,” Feller says.  “Most important decisions have to made within its confines, the first family lives there—the girls are there, the grandma is there, and you’ll often see Bo running around—and there are tourists coming in on tours and looking on from outside the gate.”  And at the same time, it’s also an office to the reporters on the White House beat and not just a place they go to cover an event.

Feller, who is a big sports fan, was excited when he ended up behind Eli Manning, who was visiting the White House after the New York Giants won the Super Bowl.  However, running into the football player wasn’t a big surprise.  It’s quite common for a reporter to spot a celebrity or famous company executive while at work.  Feller classifies these run-ins as intersection of life surprises, where you’ll be sitting in your booth, hear a rush, and there will be James Taylor strumming on the guitar or Steven Spielberg here for a screening of Lincoln.  “Sometimes,” Feller comments, “even when it becomes such an intense place to work in terms of chasing a story or because you’re in your eighth day of work without sleep, something will happen, and it’ll just snap you back to it because it’s the White House.”

For Feller, there aren’t many surprises at the White House in terms of reporting.  Though there was a day that truly stunned him, when Obama called General Stanley McChrystal to the Oval Office after he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone as being derisive of the president and Vice President Joe Biden and was subsequently fired.  Feller remembers thinking things were moving extremely fast, but what stood out to him was that he generally did not find it surprising when General McChrystal was fired.

“And that’s the job,” Feller said.  When you know what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it, he says it is up to you, as a White House reporter, to fight to get the information they don’t want to give or be held accountable for.

It is important to remember, he said, that the points of view differ between the press corps and the White House.  The goal of the White House press corps, defines Feller, is to take information, comprehensively and smartly break news about what the president’s goings on, and then explain it to the American people in a fair way but with a ubiquitous critical eye.  Reporters, he says, will always want to garner more information—even Feller, himself,admits to this—and move past the presented talking points.

How many calls were made?  Who was talked to?  Who influenced the decision?  How was the decision reached?  Was there internal dissension?  What political consideration went into the process?  How are the American people affected?  These are the questions reporters want to ask.  This is the information on which they want to report.  Feller says the White House approaches reporters, knowing what they’d like to know but restricting their briefs to points a, b, and c.  If there is no political interest in the information, he says it simply won’t be presented.

Feller contrasts the White House with Capitol Hill.  With 535 members of Congress, he says reporters are given more free reign to walk the halls and catch someone after lunch—it’s made simple, when these Hill reporters know the routes a person takes outside the building. It also helps that a lot of these members want to talk, he says.  Feller lays out three categories under which a member who speaks with the press may fall:  They like the press, they know how to use the press, or they are not as well known and want to get into the press.

All of that is different from the White House.  Where Capitol Hill is open, the White House is limited to Feller.  He explains one factor to this is that there is only one president.  The other is that the circle around the newsman is much smaller, and it’s the job of the reporter to penetrate it.  The limitations around the White House, then, he says, are only limiting to the degree a reporter lets it be limiting.

Feller believes this country will always have a need for a dedicated corps of reporters, who cover the White House and know the issues.  These people for Feller are the people who can pinpoint what the president is thinking and how his thinking is shaped.  As Feller says, “You can’t put a premium on the value of really fair, smart reporters, who focus solely on the White House and explain its decisions to the country and who have to the ability the stand up and question the president.”  What is changing is the reliance of the White House on the press.

The White House doesn’t need the press as much as it did in the past, Feller says.  In previous years, it was important to speak with the press corps because, as Feller says, those reporters were writers and anchors of the biggest audiences.  Now, with administrations using social media as a vehicle to put out their message, he finds press briefings are being used as evidence for transparency.  Just as the press knows the answers that will be provided to their questions, Feller says the White House is aware of the questions that will be asked and how the questions will be framed.  Most administrations would rather turn towards another news outlet, who would be happy with five minutes of the president’s time, most likely asking about a local issue for which he is prepared to answer, in favor of an unscripted questions coming from a White House reporter.  Therefore, Fellers says, statistics put out, showing a large amount of interviews conducted with the president, can be misleading and done out of political self-interest.

Reporters, Feller included, will never be satiated by the amount of information provided by the White House.  Even if the number of press briefings doubled or tripled, says Feller, or if all issues were completely addressed, the press corps would be hungry for more.  This, he says, stems from difficulty of getting insight on the president’s thinking.  The only person, who can say what the President feels and why he did what he did, is the president, and getting the answers to those questions can be terrifically illuminating and fulfilling.  Such unscripted moments with the president have helped make Feller’s story and guide people in their understanding of Washington.

One of the largest misconceptions of working on the White House beat is the spoon-feeding of information for Feller.  He was often frustrated in the press briefings because, though it appears on television that reporters are only there to ask questions, he says the time was often used as an opportunity to issue talking points.  “It was all very scripted,” he says.  Before coming out to the gaggle, the spokesperson would have been briefed on the issues and predicted possible questions to be heard and answered on the president’s behalf.  Feller would often look up after half an hour and ask himself what he learned that day, and often his answer was ‘very little.’  He also recounts having to fight the urge to smack his head against a wall after going to bat for what he thought to be a straightforward piece of information.  As such, Feller considered the briefing as only part of the architecture of the day, and though a reader might come across a quote from it, most of the reporting is done outside of the Brady Press Briefing Room.  For Feller, there’s deeper reporting to be done.

The place is naturally contentious, says Feller, because the White House is not just sharing information, it is fighting everyday, as a body of partisans, for the president, and the press corps is there to hold him accountable.  With such high stakes, he defines tension as a permanent fixture in the offices, but the relationships between reporters do not see the same resolute conflict.  At the end of the day, it can be said they everyone is simply trying to do their job.

The White House had a carnival out on the South Lawn for Congress and the families of its members in June 2009.  Inside the briefing room, there was banter about Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, sitting in the dunk tank.  When out on the lawn, an announcement went over the overhead, saying whoever wants to dunk Robert Gibbs should go up.  On this rare, hot day, Gibbs was in a wetsuit, giving the party-goers a shot to sink him.  The first to go was Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, but she missed all three shots.  Then they got to Feller.  He had two throws, missed both, and on the third try, he nailed it, all the while Gibbs tried to get into his head with questions such as ‘Have you gotten your interview yet?’  He knew Gibbs well, so as he went to shake the press secretary’s hand, he tried to pull Feller into the water with him.

Despite having a good throwing arm, Feller would like to be known for his accuracy.  For him, through it may sound strange, the thing that gets overlooked the most is getting it right.  Reporting, he says, has become too quick and too superficial with the growth in number of news outlets covering the White House and the rush to be first.  “I believe that I’m know for never falling into that trap,” says Feller.  He wants to be remembered for trades not to be trifled with:  accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness.  “If you do that, you’re accurate, you’re fair, you’re thorough, on that beat with that many stories, that many sensitive stories, you’ll develop a name as a world class reporter,” he says.

“Ultimately, I hope that that’s what they’re saying around the White House—my peers and the people from both administrations I’ve covered.  ‘You know, this guy was a world class reporter.’”

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