The Presidential Press Conference, An Endangered Species?

So much for the promise of “the most open and transparent White House in history,” at least when it comes to press conferences.

Thursday President Obama held his first press conference 1 in almost a year: from 22 July 2009 to 27 May 2010. That’s 309 days, if you’re counting. According to the June issue of Harpers magazine, the longest period between similar press conferences for President Bush was 204 days.

This doesn’t mean that President Obama has been ignoring the press. And it certainly doesn’t mean his PR team hasn’t been posting clips on its WhiteHouse YouTube channel.

What it does mean is that he is employing control the message tactics honed by Republicans:

Obama surprised many people during the 2008 primaries by expressing his admiration for the methods and results if not the politics of Ronald Reagan. Their common aversion (as it now appears) from meetings with the press corps may prompt one to expand on the resemblance. Both the Reagan and Obama presidencies have been guided by simple messages and a flattering emphasis on the personality of the leader. Obama, like Reagan, cultivates an image of maximum accessibility, while avoiding, so far as possible, public occasions that involve him in a confrontation with facts for which he is answerable.

Obama also prefers the one-on-one “personal interview” to a more open question-and-answer session. According to professor Martha Kumar of Towson State University:

Where George W. Bush held 186 brief Q&A’s – the daily bread and butter for the White House press corps, particularly wire service reporters – and gave only 56 personal interviews, Obama has done almost exactly the opposite. He has held only 56 Q-and-As, and granted 188 personal interviews.

The dangers here should be obvious: what does a reporter need to do in order to gain this entree? How obsequious? What promises must be made in advance about what can and cannot be discussed? What synergies are lost when there is only one person asking questions?

Clearly, as Kumar told Major Garrett, it’s “all about message discipline.”

Message discipline is a rational approach for a politician, but is it good for the electorate? The fourth estate is supposed to act in the public interest (that’s one reason for the First Amendment). As such, regular press conferences, at least theoretically, provide an opportunity for journalists to ask tough questions. However, that’s the theory, not the practice, as Presidents tend to ignore questions (and questioners) at will. And journalists have dueling goals: they don’t want to lose access while getting a newsworthy response.

What do you think? Do we need more Presidential press conferences? Should the format be changed and, if so, how? And is non-mediated communication (all of those YouTube clips and minimally questioning news encounters) sufficient to hold the President’s feet to the fire of accountability?

 
A Historical Note
Although the presidential press conference got its start (15 March 1913) with Woodrow Wilson, it was David Eisenhower (19 January 1955) who started the televised press conference. John F. Kennedy upped the stakes by starting the live televised press conference, which meant more control over the message (assuming that people were watching).

1 Scholars label an event a “press conference” if it is a public event where accredited reporters are free to ask any question of the President, if there is a transcript of the on-the-record event, and if the event is scheduled and announced in advance. (cite)

You can watch Thursday’s press conference at C-SPAN.