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Here’s today’s puzzler. When is a press conference not a press conference?
The answer is:
When the person pretending to conduct the exercise picks those who will be allowed to ask questions ahead of time and then spends almost an hour artfully dodging any direct answer to a direct inquiry, essentially making a speech or, if you prefer as some analysts have suggested, filibustering.
That apparently is how Barack Obama sees the time-honored obligation of now and then exposing himself to the probing questions of the dwindling Washington press corps. So Tuesday night’s performance, the second since his inauguration, was merely a repeat of the first with long-winded answers that were both unresponsive and clearly designed to present his message over and over again to Americans he expected to be transfixed in front of their TV sets during broadcast primetime when that was the only thing playing. Has he never heard of cable?
If anyone doubted that the president is of that BlackBerry generation of young Americans whose basic source of information comes from a handheld electronic device or listening to sound bites, the fact that he virtually ignored the print press should dispel any such notion. He called on the representative of only one mainstream newspaper, The Washington Times, strengthening the belief that he considers struggling daily journals from Maine to Oregon increasingly irrelevant. Ironically, the major newspapers overwhelmingly supported his candidacy.
To show that he believes in media equality, he did call on Stars and Stripes, the Army daily; Ebony magazine; and Agence France Presse, the wire service propped up by the French government. He also gave the Spanish language TV network Univision an opportunity to be recognized. So much for The Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which hang on his every word and, of course, The Wall Street Journal, which has a large stake in reporting about his plans to revive the economy. The national daily USA Today also got the cold shoulder, as did the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
The news value of these affairs never has been very high and at times the decorum of reporters, even in this most solemn and rarefied atmosphere, has not been above reproach. But even during testy questioning by belligerent reporters and equally sharp replies as was frequently the case during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, there was at least an aura of authenticity unlike the contrivance of the current exercise.
Since George Washington, presidents have entered the office determined to manage the press. For most of George W. Bush’s tenure, the White House controlled every snippet of news in typical corporate fashion but never could put the clamps on the free wheeling press conferences. The current regime, however, has found a distinct way of doing that — just pick out 12 or 13 questioners before hand and ignore the rest.
Why do the un-anointed show up when they might just as well watch it on TV? That is, if television would be interested in broadcasting a much smaller gathering. By attending aren’t they lending themselves to a staged event? Of course they are. But hope springs eternal that lightning might strike or the camera will show them diligently taking notes.
It would be difficult to accuse Obama of totally ignoring traditional media, having made himself available for interviews to The New York Times and The Washington Post and taping appearances from Jay Leno to "60 Minutes." There is no doubt that he is self assured and far more comfortable in those settings than his immediate predecessor. He might be wise to remember, however, that the press conference, as unproductive news wise as it may seem, draws a far wider audience and is far more dignified than the "Tonight Show" where network officials didn’t have the grace to hold off the constant stream of commercials despite the fact they had the president of the United States at their disposal.
So now you know when a press conference is not really a press conference and you might remember when the next one comes around that you are watching the equivalent of a professional wrestling match.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)