The Fleeting Obsessions Of The White House Press Corps From the VA and Secret Service scandals to Ebola, each week brought another hot issue into the White House briefing room. Here's a look at just how short the press corps' attention span was in 2014.
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The Fleeting Obsessions Of The White House Press Corps

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The Fleeting Obsessions Of The White House Press Corps

The Fleeting Obsessions Of The White House Press Corps

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Another thing that came up in Steve's conversation with President Obama was the news media. The president said the press hasn't focused enough on parts of his record, like improvements in the economy. In complaining about the media, the president can take a number behind most any politician on every side of every issue. And whatever your political views, the media do suffer from a certain attention deficit disorder. NPR correspondent Tamara Keith has finished her first full year in the White House briefing room.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In 20 seconds, here is 2014 in the White House press briefing room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Happy New Year, everyone. It is great to be back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Unemployment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Affordable Care Act.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The VA.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: General Shinseki.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The border crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Does ISIS...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: The Secret Service.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Back to the Secret Service.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Ebola.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: If there is a travel ban...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Ferguson.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: North Korea's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: Here we are in what is my last press briefing of the year.

KEITH: The year started with one of those will-they-or-won't-they congressional dramas over renewing long-term unemployment benefits. Congress never did extend the benefits. And questions about it in the briefing room disappeared by the end of January. And so it went with stories getting hot for a week, maybe three, and dominating the White House press briefing until the news cycle moved on. Unemployment was replaced by questions about Obamacare and then Ukraine. In the White House briefing room, interest began to build as pro-Russian forces moved into Crimea. But before long, that was replaced by the scandal of secret wait lists at VA hospitals. Here's ABC's Jonathan Karl in mid-May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN KARL: It seems that there was a cover-up to try to hide the true size of the backlog.

KEITH: Over two weeks, the questions crescendoed with reporters, including AP's Julie Pace, asking whether VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should keep his job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE PACE: And I'm wondering if the president continues to have confidence in the secretary's ability to lead that department.

KEITH: The next day, Shinseki resigned. And questions about the VA essentially vanished from the daily press briefing. Amy Mitchell heads journalism research at Pew.

AMY MITCHELL: There was a huge spike for about three weeks, and then it just falls very, very quickly down to an extremely low level of attention in the mainstream media.

KEITH: Since then, the VA says there's been an 18 percent drop in wait times for primary care appointments along with other improvements, though the problems are far from solved.

Another story that spiked was the Central American children crossing the U.S. border. Questions from White House reporters peaked in mid-July. Then, like so many stories, interest waned. In his year-end press conference, President Obama bemoaned the fact that no one seems to care that the situation at the border has improved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It may not get fixed in the timeframe of the news cycle, but it gets fixed.

KEITH: But by then, the White House Press Corps had moved on to the next flashy thing - the military action against ISIS, followed by the White House fence jumper and lapses by the Secret Service. In October, it was Ebola. The deadly virus dominated daily briefings for three weeks amid questions about whether it could spread in the U.S.

Pew's Mitchell says strained resources at the nation's news organizations are at least partially to blame for the short attention span. She says there are fewer reporters who can linger on a story, and that makes for a more reactive media.

MITCHELL: As that happens, and you become more reactive, the news cycle is also speeding up. And the media can in many cases find themselves jumping around from event to event and issue to issue to try to just stay on top of what's being rolled out on a daily basis.

KEITH: And the White House Press Corps, with its televised daily briefings, is a microcosm of the national media as a whole. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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