Thursday, March 26, 2009
Obama Press Conferences: More Show, Less Transparency
President Barack Obama has had two press conferences so far, and both of them were more of an exercise in public relations than they were a demonstration of a free and aggressive press seeking answers to tough questions from the leader of the free world.
As a campaigner, then-Sen. Barack Obama was a master at conveying his message, one of hope for Democrats and change for everybody during the next four years. One of the cornerstones of his campaign was that he pledged to open up the White House and be a more transparent president than his predecessor. But the reality of the first two months of his administration has not borne that out.
His own web site is a head scratcher. The page that listed his transparency promises now has the message "The page you requested is not available right now." His press office has stonewalled journalists from offering up basic information such as the president's daily schedule and the spelling of a press officer's name. During the first week on the job he did a walk-through of the White House press room and was stunned that reporters fired questions at him. A reporter had to audacity to ask about the deputy defense secretary whom Obama has appointed. The appointee had lobbied for Raytheon, but Obama' had just issued new rules against lobbyists coming to work for him. Obama responded: "I came down here to visit. I didn't come down here -- this is what happens. I can't end up visiting you guys and shaking hands if I am going to grilled every time I come down here."
Well, that accelerated his learning curb. Stay away from reporters who are trained to ask tough questions, and limit appearances to "web town-hall meetings" or news outlets that are either friendly or not accustomed to dealing with the president and willing to accept any condition to get an interview. This policy has been so fruitful for Obama that he is constantly avoiding White House Press Corps reporters. He originally cancelled the traditional head-of-state photo-op-and-question session when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited, only to arrange a short Oval Office opportunity when Brown requested it. Recently he was given a "Newsmaker of the Year Award" by a newspaper association during a White House ceremony that was, ironically, closed off to working journalists.
It all plays into his communication strategy that was developed during the campaign: Bypass the media when you can and go straight to the public via the Internet or other methods. It worked like a charmed as he ran for president because he was not challenged on it. Candidates can do that, it's their choice. It was brilliant, and he pulled it off flawlessly.
But presidents need to be accountable. If the last eight years taught us anything it should be that.
So the communication strategy now continues at press conferences. Reporters are preselected. Traditionally, reporters at a press conference, especially at the White House, aggressively raise their hands to be called upon. Generally they are allowed a follow-up question. These follow-ups are often tougher questions than the first because they zero in on a point that the president may have slipped up on while answering the first question.
But now as reporters are preselected, aggressive questioning is minimized. There is no need to be forceful when asking a question if you know your time will come. The questions then tend to be softer, easier for the president to handle. (Reporters with tougher questions tend to be more aggressive in getting answers, this method of lining up the questions eliminates that). Heck, if you're not on the preselect list, your actually playing into his hands. The image of a full room of reporters is a plus, even if 90 percent of them have not business being there except to sit in a chair and stay quiet.
He also has the advantage of picking questions from reporters he knows are not going to upset his message too much. By picking B-list agencies such as cable outlets and magazines, he further increases the chances he can stay on message. In his first press conference he got a question about A-Rod for goodness's sake. Robert Gibbs couldn't have been more pleased.
The president promised transparency. The American public deserves transparency in a time when trillions of their money are being spent on questionable bailouts. Manipulating the press and dragging your feet on the basic release of information is not the way to go about it. It's time Obama kept his promise and provided an open and robust opportunity to face sound, tough questions from journalists who know how to ask them.