14 April 2010

Are White House Press Conferences Still Necessary?

Great question at WaPo's Post Politics Hour:

Washington, D.C.: How would you compare President Obama's availability to the press compared with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush?

Anne Kornblut: I don't have the statistics (I'm sure Mark Knoller of CBS does) but Obama feels removed in a way similar to Bush. Obama has done a fair number of one-on-one television interviews, especially when he's had an agenda to push. And I believe he's done more press conferences, and had in reporters for off-the-record sessions. But Bush seemed to enjoy talking to reporters more, off the record, anyway. Or maybe he just faked it better.
Ties in nicely with Reporters reach new levels of frustration with Obama White House.

I have a question: Is this is a classic example of the news media acting as a special interest? For more background of the news media as a special interest, I recommend reading Governing with the news: the news media as a political institution, by Timothy E. Cook:
Thus, the news media may be a political institution, but more like the intermediary institutions of party and interest group than the three constitutional branches of legislature, executive, and judiciary. Yet there is one key distinction between the news media on one hand and the party and interest group on the other: the latter are formed and maintained for the strategic collective pursuit of openly and specifically political aims. The news media (at least since the demise of the partisan press in the nineteenth century) are not. In comparison with the explicit politics of party and interest groups, the news media's politics, power, and impact may well be implicit and hidden, even (or especially) from its own practitioners.
The page for this quote is embedded below:

For the record, Obama's last press conference (primetime live!) was July 22, 2009. It has been 267 days (or 8 months, 24 days) since then. I think the televised-live primetime Presidential press conference has jumped the shark. I haven't missed it. On July 24, 2009, a Rasmussen poll showed 40% Say Obama Has Too Many Press Conferences, 47% Say Number Is Right. Have you seen a recent poll showing the public clamoring for more live primetime Presidential press conferences? I couldn't find any. Is the White House press corps representing the public's level of frustration, or their own? If they are not frustrated on behalf of the public, are they frustrated for other reasons? The health of democracy and (eat your vegetables) public good? Preserving their own occupational rituals and traditions? According to CBS's Mark Knoller, Obama's First Year: By the Numbers
• Of which 5 were formal, solo White House Q&A sessions. Four were in prime time. His last one was July 22, 2009.
• Nearly all of the other press availabilities were joint appearances with foreign leaders at which as few as 1 question was taken by Mr. Obama.
• Predecessor George W. Bush did 21 news conferences his first year of which 4 were formal, solo White House sessions. Only 1 was in prime time.
Two months ago, Obama answers questions submitted on YouTube
President Obama continued efforts to open himself to direct scrutiny from his critics on Monday, sitting for a half-hour of questions submitted to YouTube during his State of the Union address last week.

The online news conference of sorts follows the president's 90-minute Q&A with Republican House members at their retreat last week, which was broadcast live on cable outlets. Both were examples of the White House attempting to demonstrate Obama's willingness to listen to voices outside his party after last month's Democratic loss in the Massachusetts Senate race.
So, what's the problem? Why do we need a 90 minute, primetime-live!, press conference with President Obama? Does this ring true to you?
It’s certainly pretty unarguable that reporters often — even usually — do not get frank or revealing answers to questions at White House pressers, or any press conferences for that matter. Obviously, you still have to ask the question — but for an actual journalist, the question is just the beginning, even when it’s not answered. Even more so if it’s not answered. What Milbank seems to be telling us, though, is that he entirely expects not to get an answer. But that’s okay, because what really matters is asking the question. He doesn’t say, “Not surprising. But it’s still important that the questions are asked, and asked again, and again, and again, until they are answered.” His job is done once the question is asked, no matter what the answer is, or whether there even is an answer.
My initial reaction, when the press complains about not being able to ask the President questions, is "Why waste his time, your time, and most importantly, my time?" If President Obama doesn't want to grant access to the press, get out of the White House. Cover the White House from the outside instead of being insiders. Skip the background briefings. Why is "embedded journalism" controversial unless it is being conducted within the White House?

Press airs grievances to Gibbs
Ed Chen, a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News who is president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said he asked for the meeting “to clear the air because in my 10-plus years at the White House, rarely have I sensed such a level of anger, which is wide and deep, among members over White House practices and attitude toward the press.”

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