Decline and fall of presidential press conferences

Oct 12 2011 - 10:12am

Today, after a summer of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires, we are taking an up-close tour of a federal disaster that not even FEMA can fix.

We refer, of course, to the presidential press conference.

At 11 a.m. on October 6, considerable damage was inflicted to this historic federal institution in the White House East Room. It may not have made the Federal Emergency Management Agency's radar, let alone its FEMA To-Do List. But we are here to serve.

Two things have gone disastrously wrong with the presidential press conference in recent years. One is the president. The other is the press.

The president: Unlike some recent presidents, Barack Obama's great strength is that he doesn't get all flummoxed when he uses the English language.

But that has become his great weakness as a communicator. Instead of treating each question as a topic for a message to convey to the public -- a clear, concise Reaganesque bumper-strip of a theme -- Obama turns virtually every answer into a seminar. His responses go on forever. Even when he has a potentially compelling message, it ends up in oceans of words. It gets lost at sea.

The Press: My colleagues in the White House press corps seem to have forgotten the basics of serving readers and viewers -- asking well reported, sharply focused questions that compel an official to provide specific information and explanations -- or be revealed as evading.

The flaws of both sides were painfully obvious in last week's press conference.

The president began with a lengthy 953-word opening statement on the economy and his American Jobs Act. Then the first reporter asked about two divergent things: Did Obama agree with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the economy was "close to faltering?" And, asserting Americans are "sick of games," wouldn't it be "more productive" if Obama stopped "calling out Republicans by name?"

That left Obama, free to go in any direction he chose. He began a 1,137-word seminar (nearly twice the length of this column) that spanned the Japanese tsunami, Arab Spring, Europe's crisis.

The next reporter began with: "Before I get to my question..." (Whoa, he just invented the pre-question question). As a stand-alone, it could have been excellent: Would Obama accept the Senate Democrats' 5.6 percent surtax on millionaires that differs from his plan? (The reporter got a sort of yes.) But the reporter jumped to his real (see also unrelated) question: Is Obama worried his persuasive powers are gone and Americans aren't listening to him?

"Well no," Obama replied. But that preamble was followed by a leisurely 664-word amble by the president that was a time waster.

Later a reporter served a bizarre journalistic smorgasbord -- suggesting Occupy Wall Street protesters are displeased by the administration's lack of prosecutions for banking and finance misdeeds, then linked the administration's $38-billion loan guarantee to the Solyndra solar company which quicklywent belly-up, and the "Fast and Furious" government gun-running debacle, and asking if all that "gives you any pause about any of the decision-making going on in your administration?"

It was like a baseball pitcher giving the batter the ball and saying "Just throw it up and hit it anywhere you want." It left unasked all the key questions: Did Obama know of officials' emailed doubts about the loan when he extolled Solyndra's virtues? Did Obama withhold those doubts from us, or did his staff withhold the doubts from him? Since Solyndra's top backer was a major Democratic contributor, how can this be "change we can believe in" as Obama famously promised?

All these questions (and others) were asked by intelligent, highly regarded reporters, whose predecessors were known for sharp, focused queries that couldn't be easily ducked. Has our profession yielded to the worst temptations of the blogosphere? Can anyone show us the way?

Well, someone did. Obama, fed up with softball reporting (but only about his opponents, of course), turned one answer into a seminar on Journalism 101.

"... Here's a little homework assignment," Obama said. "... Go ask the Republicans what their jobs plan (is) ... and have it assessed by the same independent economists that have assessed our jobs plan. ... I think it would be interesting to have them ... evaluate what, over the next two years, the Republican jobs plan would do. I'll be interested in the answer."

Embarrassingly for our profession, on that Professor Obama is spot on.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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