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TV Review: 'Press Secretary' gives inside view of president vs. media

Monday, September 17, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Anyone with an interest in the behind-the-scenes politics of people in powerful positions will appreciate this inside look at the mouthpiece for the most powerful world leader, especially in light of last week's events.

"The Press Secretary" (10 tonight, WQED/WQEX) to the president of the United States helps each administration craft its response to world events, specifically questions from members of the Fourth Estate. This one-hour documentary, filmed in the final year of the Clinton presidency, casts Clinton's next-to-last press secretary, Joe Lockhart, as the program's star, even its hero.

"The Press Secretary"

When: 10 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Narrated by: Will Lyman.


That's perhaps its only flaw. Although Lockhart professes a need to speak only the truth and keep his mouth shut when he doesn't want to answer a question, publicists -- that's really what the press secretary is -- are adept in the skills of obfuscation and sin by omission.

Fans of fictional presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) on "The West Wing" will appreciate this peek into the real world, but it's truly the realm of all publicists, whether they're speaking on behalf of the president or a television network or a tobacco company.

Lockhart explains the daily battle the White House wages between pushing its own agenda and being pushed by the agenda of the press corps. He's especially concerned, and rightfully so, about the 24-hour news cycle that's been created by the Internet and cable news channels that are always hungry for a fresh story.

"We have 24 hours a day of people speculating and analyzing because that's the easy stuff," Lockhart says.

During a press conference, a reporter asks a question based on a story from the Internet-based rumormongering Drudge Report.

"Don't bring that gentleman's reporting into this room," Lockhart snaps.

"Sometimes he's right," the reporter replies.

"Yeah, well, 'sometimes' is a standard you should strive to be better than," Lockhart says.

Even some of the White House correspondents agree, with one acknowledging today's media is "less thoughtful and more speculative" than it once had been. What Lockhart fails to acknowledge is that speculation is sometimes the only place to go in the face of stone-walling.

"The Press Secretary" shows Lockhart's troops reading copies of newspaper articles prepared from each day's papers so the press office can get a sense of the media's agenda. It also depicts underlings trying to arrange seating for a press event that will provoke the fewest complaints from finicky reporters.

That attention to detail comes as little surprise. "The Press Secretary" was written/produced/directed by Theodore Bogosian, who also pulled back the curtain on an NBC cop drama for the excellent 1998 PBS documentary "Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Street."

In "Press Secretary," Lockhart describes his job as a balancing act between getting out the message the administration wants to communicate and answering questions from the press corps. He says he knows he's doing his job right when everyone is a little dissatisfied, but naturally his loyalties lie with his boss, the president. That's obvious in a scene where Lockhart briefs Clinton on how to answer specific questions that are expected to be asked during a press conference.

Lockhart describes the question-and-answer period itself as terrifying if the president strays from what's been prepared, thereby ceding control to the press.

"It's like driving down the highway with your eyes closed," Lockhart says.

The constant struggle over control of the message is at the heart of "The Press Secretary," an insightful program about the most powerful publicist to the most powerful person in the world.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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