The Obama administration has recently taken a raft of criticism over its relationship with the press, much of it from within the White House press corps. While there are varying degrees of validity to the complaints, I’m most fascinated by the debate over presidential news conferences. The White House Correspondents Association wants more of them, while Robert Gibbs thinks everything’s fine. I think I have a better idea.
Even granting Robert Gibbs’ assertion that the President’s eight question juggernaut at April’s Nuclear Summit is the equivalent of a formal press conference, there has definitely been a shift away from pressers. As Gibbs pointed out awhile back, there were complaints in the media that the President was becoming overexposed when he was doing one of these a month during the first 6 months of his presidency, coupled with copious one-on-one interviews.
Then came a long drought, beginning in August and continuing until at least April (by Gibbs’ reckoning). During that time, however, President Obama did continue to give record numbers of speeches and interviews, so I reject the idea that there is any practical difference in terms of access to the President. The news outlets getting those interviews are, by and large, the same privileged few who get to ask questions at those pressers, and interviews allow for greater follow-up.
On the other hand, is it an accident that August also marked the exact moment the administration lost control of the health care debate, and consequently the entire media narrative, which has since been defined by a small, vocal opposition? When they needed it most, the administration holstered its most effective weapon. As exemplified by his performance at January’s House Republican Issues Conference, President Obama is at his best when he’s having questions fired at him, the tougher the better.
That’s why I think the President should return to the press firing line, but without the stagey, canned format that has been customary at formal East Room presidential news conferences. There are the opening remarks, which eat up 20 minutes or so, delivered to a couple hundred reporters, only a dozen of which will actually get to ask a question. With rare, but notable, exceptions, the reporters called on are from the same outlets that already enjoy extraordinary access to the President, so the rest of us are just there to dress the scenery.
Knowing the brightness of the spotlight invariably affects the types of questions asked. Lynn Sweet touched off the “Beer Summit” brew-haha at an East Room presser, and the New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny overthought one question into absurd, if enchanting, territory.
I think that a far more productive use of everyone’s time would be for the President to conduct one briefing a month, unannounced and on a day chosen at random, from Gibb’s podium in the Brady Briefing Room. This would result in a much freer exchange, a more diverse roster of questioners, and more relevant, spontaneous questions. Choosing the day at random would either keep these sessions from becoming teeming circuses, or it would guarantee increased attendance at all of Gibbs’ briefings.
This isn’t all about self-interest, either. While the people and the press would benefit greatly, so would the President. Not only is he at his most effective in this setting, but this format would give him greater latitude to avoid pitfalls like “Gates-gate.” A normal briefing would have given other reporters a chance to follow up on Lynn Sweet’s question, and perhaps afforded Obama the chance to clarify. While it still would have made news, it might not have resulted in quite the same spectacle.
This format would also save the administration from itself, to some degree. The dynamic between the media and the White House has evolved into a study in crossed purposes. The White House gives the people what it wants to give them, emphasizing speeches, town halls, and other vehicles to get out its well-honed, if somewhat canned, message.
The media, meanwhile, gives “the people what they want,” as expressed by eyeballs and dollars. Death Panels and Tea Parties make tastier meals for the 6 minute news beast than the President’s commencement address to East Bumblef**** University. This is a perversion of the fourth estate’s true mission, to give the people what they need, but it is a fact of life.
My plan offers a chance to merge these two missions, or at least move them closer together. The White House press corps is composed of some of the best journalists around, a fact that gets buried by sensation-seeking news editors. Putting them together with the President on a regular basis plays to everyone’s strength, and virtually forces substance into the rest of the media.
I floated the plan to Gibbs last week, albeit with considerably less detail. Here’s what he had to say:
Well, I didn’t expect him to say “Sold!” He probably has to check with a few people before he shifts the administration’s entire communications strategy. Hopefully, this idea takes root, and we can look forward to more spontaneous, effective interactions between the President and the press.
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