PBS anchor Judy Woodruff was doing her weekly grocery shopping Saturday when she got a call from the White House’s press office: Would the public TV network like to interview President Obama on the eve of his nationwide address about a possible military strike against Syria, asked Dag Vega, Obama’s director of broadcast media.
“We said, ‘Of course we’re interested,’” Woodruff said. As it happened, she wasn’t the only one getting a call from Vega this past weekend.
In an unprecedented blitz to sell a Syria attack, the White House lined up interviews for the president with six TV networks on Monday — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and PBS.
It was the first time a president has done so many network interviews in a single day. He has done five twice before, in February 2009, when former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) withdrew from consideration for a Cabinet post, and in July 2009, on Obama’s first trip to Moscow, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS Radio White House correspondent who keeps detailed records of the president’s interviews.
The White House’s historic full-court press may reflect the gravity of the Syria issue, as well as the fact that Obama still has a long way to go to persuade reluctant lawmakers to go along with his call for launching a “limited” military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Many in Congress remain dubious, and opinion polls are running strongly against the president’s call for action.
On Monday evening, all six networks aired their interviews with Obama, which took place in rapid succession in the White House’s Blue Room. In each, the president didn’t back down from his threat of military force.
According to network news officials, the White House’s press operation set several conditions for the interviews, though it didn’t seek to limit the questions to Syria alone.
First, each network was given a brief window to question the president — just seven to 10 minutes. Second, the interviews were embargoed until 6 p.m. EST Monday, both to ensure equal access among the six and to maximize the audience for the president’s message. Third, the White House requested that each network send its leading news anchor.
The networks generally complied, though NBC News anchor Brian Williams couldn’t travel from New York because of a recent knee operation (he was replaced by “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie). Fox News assigned Chris Wallace, the host of its “Fox News Sunday” panel-discussion program. And Woodruff deferred to Gwen Ifill, her co-anchor on“PBS NewsHour.”
The six anchors posed for an unusual pre-interview group shot that was posted by Ifill on Twitter on Monday.
The White House often steers presidential interviews to hand-picked journalists; when Obama expressed his support for equal marriage rights last year, for example, the White House chose “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts, a journalist associated more with “soft” news than the prime-time anchors.
This time, the anchors came and went in succession over a 90-minute period. The order of questioners was determined by drawing names from a hat, with NBC and Guthrie first in. To keep the traffic moving, the networks used a “pool” setup, sharing cameras and audio equipment.
Woodruff, who interviewed the president with Ifill just 10 days ago, said the White House invitation was “unexpected.” But even if the president is promoting a controversial military policy, there was no thought of turning it down, she said. Presidential interview invitations are rare, Woodruff said, “so when you get an opportunity like this, you don’t walk away.”
The sentiment was echoed by Christopher Isham, CBS News’s Washington bureau chief and chairman of a five-network group that regularly shares resources for presidential coverage. “There’s no question he’s trying to get his message out about his Syria policy in as many possible ways as he can,” Isham said. “Clearly, it’s in his interest to talk to all of us. But it’s also in our interest when we have the opportunity to talk to the president.”
One individual with NBC grumbled that MSNBC wasn’t on the invitees’ list, particularly since MSNBC appeals to liberal viewers, a constituency that typically supports Obama but is wary of his Syria policy. Also left off the list: Univision, the Spanish-language network that often reaches more viewers than English-language news broadcasters.
White House spokesman Jay Carney did not respond to a request for comment.