The Process Story: A Washington Distraction In the past few weeks, Washington insiders have been riveted by newspaper and magazine stories about President Obama and his relationship with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It's a storyline almost identical to a fictional one from The West Wing.
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The Process Story: A Washington Distraction

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The Process Story: A Washington Distraction

The Process Story: A Washington Distraction

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Television shows like "The West Wing" have been ripping stories from the headlines for years, but lately that equation is moving in reversed.

In the past few weeks, Washington insiders have been riveted by newspaper and magazine stories about President Obama and his relationship with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Some stories say Emanuel is too powerful. Others portray a White House dominated by campaign staffers, in which Emanuel's pragmatic advice on health care and the economy is ignored.

It's a storyline almost identical to a fictional one during the first season of "The West Wing."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The West Wing")

Ms. ALLISON JANNEY (Actress): (As C.J. Cregg) Mandy wrote an instruction manual for Russell, and it's out there somewhere.

RAZ: That's actress Allison Janney who played White House press secretary C.J. Cregg.

In that episode, the staffers who work for President Bartlet find out that a reporter is about to print a story detailing the relationship between the president and his chief of staff, Leo McGarry.

Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD (Actor): (As Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman) How bad is it?

Ms. JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Well, she takes the three of us to town. We dont look like rocket scientists. But, then again, were not rocket scientists.

Mr. WHITFORD: Who is it bad for?

Mr. RICHARD SCHIFF (Actor): (As Toby Ziegler) Mr. President, Leo. The president and Leo.

Mr. WHITFORD: We dont know who has this?

Ms. JANNEY: Im talking to everybody in the room.

Mr. WHITFORD: Do it quietly.

Mr. SCHIFF: And quickly. Whose paper is it in tomorrow? We have to know right away.

Ms. JANNEY: Yeah.

RAZ: The episode detailed whats known as a process story, a story not about policy or even debate, but a look at the tension behind the scenes.

Ms. DEE DEE MYERS (Political Analyst): I think it suggests how, in some ways, Washington is predictable because there are so many stories in the TV show that preceded real life.

RAZ: That's Dee Dee Myers. She was President Clinton's first press secretary and a consultant for "The West Wing." And she, too, has been following the recent process stories about Rahm Emanuel.

Ms. MYERS: The story is a distraction. It's very uncomfortable for Rahm, both because some people are calling for his head, and other people are saying, if the president had only listened to him. Neither of those are stories that Rahm wants out there. And neither of those are really the stories the president wants out there either.

I mean one of the things thats driving the story more than is there a riff between Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel is, is there a riff between Barack Obama, the candidate...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MYERS: ...and Barack Obama, the president?

RAZ: Right.

Ms. MYERS: And is Rahm Emanuel somehow responsible for going from the presidential candidate who wanted to change Washington, as we know it, to the president who's become part of the Washington establishment.

RAZ: Now, the biggest argument made about that these kinds of stories is that they take away from, you know, the substantive issues; the policy questions.

And I want to play another clip from this episode of "The West Wing." This is the Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, and she's confronting Danny Concannon. He is a reporter with The Washington Post, who is writing the story about Leo McGarry, President Bartlet's chief of staff.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The West Wing")

Ms. JANNEY: (As C.J. Cregg) Who has it?

Mr. TIMOTHY BUSFIELD (Actor): (As Danny Concannon): I do.

Ms. JANNEY: You have it?

Mr. BUSFIELD: Yeah.

Ms. JANNEY: And youre gonna write about it?

Mr. BUSFIELD: Sure.

Ms. JANNEY: Why?

Mr. BUSFIELD: Look...

Ms. JANNEY: Why?

Mr. BUSFIELD: 'Cause its news, C.J.

Ms. JANNEY: Why? Its not news.

Mr. BUSFIELD: It is.

Ms. JANNEY: It's not news just because its entertaining, Danny.

Mr. BUSFIELD: Its news 'cause the media director of a successful presidential campaign wrote a memo to a leader of a president's party describing his weaknesses.

RAZ: So clearly, C.J. Cregg is Dee Dee Myers in a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: ...in the White House. But does she have a point? I mean, are stories like the Rahm Emanuel stories not news?

Ms. MYERS: Well, it depends on how you define news. Is news information that we need to know to make the decisions? Is news something thats entertaining or is it some combination of the above? This is something we're wrestling with as a broader culture.

In terms of trying to control what is news, the White House has a different set of priorities than the news media. The news media wants to maintain its readers and its viewers, and make sure thats interesting and that it's competitive. Any news organization wants to beat its competitors no matter what the story is; whether its Tiger Woods' confession or, you know, health care policy.

So, the White House will always argue in favor, you know, to define news as things that are good for the White House.

So - and also, you know, there's an argument that whats good for the American people: Is it more important for them to understand the details of the health care reform proposal? Or is it more important for them to understand the process through which that bill may or may not pass?

RAZ: But I mean surely they can understand both, and both can be presented, right? I mean...

Ms. MYERS: Well, but there's an imbalance in the amount of information we get about each. People know way more about the process in health care than they do about whats in the bill.

RAZ: You mean the horse trading and the fighting?

Ms. MYERS: Yeah. Yeah, whether, you know, how is this going to work, and what got in the bill and what shouldnt have been in the bill?

Now, part of that is it's just simple math. The Senate version of the health care bill passed December 24th. It has not changed.

RAZ: Hmm.

Ms. MYERS: The process for getting that bill to become law has changed pretty much every day and in very dramatic ways. And so that becomes more newsy, because news is whats new.

RAZ: With these stories about Emanuel, the basic premise is: Had the president only listened to him a bit more - and we dont know if this is true, but this is the premise - had he listened to him a bit more, perhaps more of his legislative agenda would have passed, would have been accomplished, including health care overhaul.

That strikes me as a legitimate news story.

Ms. MYERS: Yeah. I mean it's not to say that every aspect of a process story is not newsworthy. I mean many are. And, again, it goes back to your definition of news. But how things work affects the outcome, and so you can't argue that thats never relevant. Of course it's relevant, but it's in terms of the volume. How - you know, why do we have 87 stories about Rahm Emanuel, which most Americans care a little bit about but not that much, and so many fewer stories about what will happen the most, the cost of most people's health care should this bill pass?

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MYERS: There's one story - and then, news organizations will say, well, we wrote about that once. Once, right?

RAZ: Hmm.

Ms. MYERS: Because the substance didnt change, but the process changed every day for months, and so people know much more about the process. And it ultimately makes it hard to get things done. And so from that perspective, where people get so bogged down in the process and it all looks like sausage getting made, and it's not very attractive - and it does undermine our democracy on some sense.

It's not to say that they should never be covered. And I dont know how you get the balance right, but thats one of things that you worry about as, you know, as the White House press secretary, or as the chief of staff or, as the president: How do you strike some balance so that people actually know what it is you're trying to achieve, not just all the flaws of the process that you're using to actually go about achieving that.

And the process is flawed because humans are flawed.

RAZ: Hmm. There was an entire "West Wing" episode called "The Process Story."

Ms. MYERS: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: But if you think about it, the entire series was a process story...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MYERS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: ...which is in part what made it so compelling, which, I guess, is why we love these stories, right?

Ms. MYERS: Right, I mean Aaron Sorkin, the brilliant creator of the show, always said that his objective was to - he loved pulling back the curtain and showing people what went on in this mysterious place called the West Wing. And he loved the little bits of information.

Oh, I remember just incidentally one day saying to him something about the president is going to pardon the turkey, which for whatever reason, he didnt know. And he thought that was just - he loved those little pieces of information about stuff that went on inside the White House, and why did that happen, and who got to decide. And, you know, to just - again, pulling back the curtain and letting people see how things happen.

But it was processed with an idealist's perspective.

RAZ: And...

Ms. MYERS: That's not necessarily the point of a process story in Washington. It's a Hollywood process story, so it's a rosier gloss.

RAZ: Has the process story changed since you were in the White House in the early '90s? Or is it the same old story again and again; it's just sort of repeat itself again and again?

Ms. MYERS: To a certain degree, yeah it repeats itself. Whats different is there are so many more outlets for the process story. And there's so much more competition for something different that every aspect of the process story becomes a story.

People might have been interested in it before but there was no place to put it. Now there's a place to put it.

RAZ: That's Dee Dee Myers. She is a political analyst, a contributing editor to "Vanity Fair" and, of course, the press secretary during President Bill Clinton's first term in office.

Dee Dee Myers, thanks for being here.

Ms. MYERS: Thanks for having me.

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