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Swing state TV stations get all-access White House pass

November 01, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • Tom Schaad of WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Va., speaks from the South Lawn of the White House after an interview with President Obama.
Tom Schaad of WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Va., speaks from the South Lawn of the White… ( )

Here's an offer no working reporter could refuse: a one-on-one interview with the president of the United States.

If you're a local TV anchor covering a crucial swing state, the White House might even be willing to sweeten the deal.

Nine local TV anchors got the full Cinderella treatment from the White House, on a day that one likened to "a whirlwind."

Yes, they interviewed the president in the Cabinet Room on Tuesday. But they also got lunch with the president's top political advisor, David Plouffe; an on-camera tour of the White House main floor in the company of a curator; a visit to First Lady Michelle Obama's garden on the South Lawn; an interview with a White House aide from their home market; and a souvenir White House snow globe (that didn't happen. To clarify, no one left the grounds with a commemorative snow globe).

The day made for some awkward moments. Press Secretary Jay Carney skipped over some of the national press to make sure the out-of-town guests got a question at the daily briefing.

So what do you do when visiting colleagues – with lustrous hair and chiseled features, mind you -- show up at the White House and get treated on a par with certain heads of state?
You interview them.

Tom Schaad is an anchor at WAVY-TV in Hampton Roads, Va. He said he believed the invitation might have had something to do with Virginia's status as a major prize in the 2012 presidential contest, a state that flipped to Obama in 2008 after decades of Republican control.

"That's how the game is played," Schaad said. "I believe that the president has an obligation to try to get reelected. And we have an obligation to try to report that, as well, and make sure our viewers understand that this is not just an open house at the White House because he's a nice guy and we're all happy family.

"There are reasons why we're invited here."

Both sides got something out of the interview. Schaad's station promoted it, with one of the anchors introducing him by saying he had "just sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with President Obama at the White House."

And Obama got a chance to reintroduce himself to a key swing state.

In his report at 5 p.m., Schaad told viewers that Obama estimated his $447-billion jobs package – now bottled up in Congress – would create up to 35,000 jobs in the Hampton Roads area alone.

Courting local news anchors is smart politics, and Obama is hardly the first president to do it. His White House has bet big on new media, sending out tweets and posting all sorts of backstage video online. But TV anchors remain an important gateway to voters. Nearly three-quarters of all adults get local information at least once a week from their local news stations, according to a study by Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"No matter what the question is -- no matter how good or not good it is -- the president is going to get exposure in that market, on a medium that more people watch than any other," said Pew's Tom Rosenstiel. "He's going to get to answer the question the way he wants. It's a very effective way of reaching a lot of people in that market. Plus, you get to associate yourself with that community by having taken the time to sit down with a local person."

It's part of a president's job -- though not always a pleasant part. In April, Obama spoke to some local anchors in the Map Room. After closing out an interview with a TV reporter from Dallas, he said: "Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?"

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