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April 14, 2004

the White House press corps

Jay Rosen wrote an essay yesterday asking why George W. Bush, at a difficult moment in his presidency, would choose to hold a press conference instead of giving a speech. Jay suggests that maybe the White House counts on the press corps to look like a special-interest group, arrogant and hostile to the president and Republicans generally. Thus the administration expects that hard questions from this particular group will make the president look good. They rely on "the idea of press as foil, the useful idiot, so outrageously biased or pedantic, so carping and clueless, that by comparison Bush appears in a flattering light, and gets the people at home cheering when he handles the situation with ease. The President re-connects this way with the audience, which also detests the press."

Jay concluded his essay, however, by arguing that this strategy would be "folly." The president actually needs a "legitimate" and "representative" press to talk to. If reporters look like a special interest group, then there is no point in addressing them in a press conference; but if they look intelligent and ask the questions that people want them to ask, then the president is in trouble.

As it turned out, the White House press corps acted exactly like "idiots," "outrageously biased or pedantic," and "carping and clueless" to boot--or so I strongly felt as I watched the live performance last night. The president was asked: "Do you feel a personal sense of responsibility for Sept. 11?" "Do you believe the American people deserve [an] apology from you ...?" "Will [the Iraq war] have been worth it, even if you lose your job for it?" "One of the biggest criticisms of you is that ... you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism?" "After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?" "I guess I wonder if you feel you have failed in any way?"

Reporters basically asked the president, over and over again, "Do you feel bad for what you thought or did in the past? Do you feel that you are competent?" That kind of question makes reporters look like adversaries (the "liberal media"), but it's actually a total softball. What can the president say except, "No, I am not a failure"? There was virtually no chance that such questions would illicit interesting news.

So why didn't reporters ask more forward-looking questions? For instance, in whom will sovereignty be vested on June 30? Does Mr Brahimi get to decide? Can we negotiate with al-Sadr, or must he be destroyed? Will the Iraqi government have veto power over US military deployments? What changes do you anticipate making in US intelligence agencies? How will democracy be restored in Pakistan?

And why didn't they ask a few deep strategic questions? For instance, do terrorist groups still rely heavily on state sponsors? What is our policy toward repressive governments (such as Uzbekistan) that help us fight al Qaeda? Is terror a tactic or an ideology? Does Iraq need a multi-party democracy, and if so, what kinds of parties are acceptable? Is a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians a precondition for mideast peace?

A serious president would have no problem with these questions, which would be part of any decent administration's daily deliberations. I suspect that our fearless leader would have some trouble answering cogently, but that would be his fault, not the responsibility of a hostile press.

So why did reporters pose so few substantial questions? One answer is that they are thoroughly immersed in the campaign horse race. The way the current campaign is shaping up, it's a contest to see which individual gets to occupy the Oval Office. One contestant is reliable, passionate, but maybe arrogant, stubborn, and not too bright. The other is smarter and personally courageous, but he flip-flops a lot. Given this framework, the press mindlessly asks the first contestant, "Are you stubborn?" He says no, and they report that this proves the point.

I don't believe that bias against Bush or the Republicans explains these poor questions. If John Kerry were the incumbent, reporters would ask him, "Do you flip-flop too much? Your opponents say that you change your mind too often. Polls show that people are beginning to agree with this charge. How do you react? Does the fact that people call you a 'flip-flopper' show that you have failed to communicate your message effectively?" And Kerry's answers would be as weak as Bush's.

Another explanation of the bad questions is simpler, but I'm afraid I tend to believe it. Namely: White House reporters simply aren't very smart. They can grasp the story of the stubborn mule versus the liberal flip-flopper, but they cannot understand geopolitics.

I have been very hard on reporters and have passed over the president's own performance, which would certainly get no better than a B in a respectable undergraduate course. But we know what to do if we want to replace the president; there's an election in November. If Bush wins, the people have spoken--and so be it. Meanwhile, a small group of reporters will continue to monopolize the right to put direct questions to the Chief Executive--an enormous power. What can we do if we find them completely inadequate? I honestly have no idea, and this is a chilling thought.

Update (4/27): Jay has now posted a longer and more detailed essay on the White House versus the press that's worth reading carefully.

Posted by peterlevine at April 14, 2004 10:25 AM

Comments

Hasn't the White House Communications Office exercised considerable discretion in all of Bush's press conference in who gets 1) to attend them and 2) called on? And not just the press conferences ... I used to follow Russell McIver's "Ari and I" column about his adventures with the former Press Secretary. It has an ideological bias, but I've never heard of it (or McIver himself) being assailed for being inaccurate.

This isn't meant to excuse the unwillingness of the press to go beyond the horse race/"when did you last beat your wife?" questions, but the White House has been playing an increasing role in shaping the White House press corps to its own benefit. Any administration would do the same, and yet, I wonder if the present Bush press corps is substantially different from the Clinton, first Bush or even the Reagan press corps. I would suspect that it is, but I haven't done the research to argue it persuasively.

Posted by: Eli at April 16, 2004 04:14 PM

Eli,

You're probably right. The President's "must-call" list was a pretty blatant effort to control the questions. However, I wonder if this strategy served Bush well. He was asked questions about his personality--especially by the favored reporters on the "most-call" list--and he gave vague responses. Since he had no opportunity to talk about the future, he had no chance to set people's minds at ease. As a result, I'll bet the polls hardly budge.

Peter

Posted by: Peter Levine at April 16, 2004 09:49 PM

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