Another Look

Ari Fleischer, Helen Thomas, Sam Donaldson and others on presidential press conferences.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

SID DAVIS

Former vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News; House correspondent for Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.

If President Obama is going to keep his promise of transparency, he should make a few changes before his next news conference. The somber mood last time was not only about the dismal economic news. The format of selecting in advance reporters who would be called on meant that there was no shouting or bobbing up and down for attention. This system favors the networks and other heavy hitters over smaller news outfits or specialty writers, and it inhibits follow-up questioning.

Obama officials reportedly informed journalists in advance who would be called on. Little wonder, then, that the news conference was devoid of excitement. Everyone else who was there served merely as props. Only a handful were allowed to stand and speak. What would happen to a maverick who dared to shout a question? Would he be tackled by the Secret Service?

The Bush administration practice of each reporter saying "Thank you, Mr. President," before even asking a question was also maintained. In the olden days, there was only one "Thank you, Mr. President" per news conference, shouted by the senior wire service reporter, and it formally ended the session.

Some past presidents required reporters to submit written questions in advance so that the president would appear sharp. But news conferences were not always stilted affairs. Ronald Reagan held more than 40 noisy, live prime-time news conferences. And legend has it that Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a dunce cap under his desk for presentation to the asker of the dumbest question.

If Obama really favors transparency, a little free-for-all among the media should fit his style. Enough of the noiseless news conferences. Democracy is noisy.

ARI FLEISCHER

White House press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003

If President Obama wants to see the White House press corps hoist themselves on their own petards, he should grant them their wish. Instead of using a list to call on reporters at his next news conference, he should let them shout.

When trust in the media is dropping along with the number of people who read newspapers and watch the news, the last thing journalists should do is act like fools on national TV, seeing who has the loudest voice -- or the reddest dress -- with their hands raised, yelling "me, me, me, me."

As White House press secretary, I typically gave President Bush a call list and a grid showing him where reporters would be seated. For the president, it makes things easier and more orderly. On the other hand, it might be tempting to the "Sonny Corleone" side of press secretary Robert Gibbs's personality to let the unruly mob contrast with a calm and cool Commander in Chief.

The media resist being "controlled." But in the YouTube age, the media will make themselves look bad if left to their own devices. President Obama should do himself, and the media, a favor and keep working from a list.

HELEN THOMAS

Columnist for Hearst newspapers; reporter for UPI for 57 years

As a White House correspondent for UPI for many years, I rotated with my Associated Press competitor for the first two questions at presidential news conferences, and I considered myself lucky for not having to shout for attention. Now I am not sure I will be called on, and that is frustrating.

I wonder at the fairness of White House officials deciding who should get called on. Regulars who show up every day to cover the president should get priority over reporters who come in only when a news conference is scheduled.

Every reporter hopes for the privilege of asking the president a question. None of us wants to be a prop. We also want to be permitted follow-ups, and it is wrong for a president to deny them, especially when he makes a faulty statement. Reporters contribute more if they are on their toes.

I preferred the days when we had pandemonium and were not quietly hoping to pose a question to the world's most powerful person. Presidents should be questioned early and often. You can't have a democracy otherwise.

SAM DONALDSON

Co-host of ABC News's "Politics Live"

I'm told that when President Obama meets journalists, the lucky reporters are often told in advance that they will have the chance to ask a question. Is the message to "think carefully about what you ask," or, as Goldfinger put it to Agent 007 when he lay strapped to the laser table, "Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last"?

The White House reporters I see today are professional; they know their job is to try to find out what a president is doing or intends to do for the public and to get his answers to his critics' complaints. Those reporters know they are not there to either build up or tear down a president (by his actions and policies he will do that) or to win a popularity contest. The questions they ask must never be rude but must always be challenging. I know some people thought I was sometimes too aggressive in my questioning, but I always knew which one of us was the president of the United States and which one wasn't.

Every president tries to "handle the press." At the end of the day he'll only do that as well as he handles his job. When people tell me how brilliantly President Obama and his people are handling the press, I just smile. Wait awhile.

DANA PERINO

White House press secretary to George W. Bush

Hollywood's version of a presidential news conference is always more exciting and dramatic than the real thing. When I was in the press office for President Bush, he averaged 15 to 18 questions per news conference and they usually lasted 45 to 50 minutes. Mostly we stuck with tradition, calling on the wire services, the networks and the major dailies -- and then we'd suggest adding someone from talk radio, a news magazine, a foreign correspondent or a hometown paper.

When you're taking that many questions, you're bound to get follow-ups, which a president can choose to answer. In my experience, the news conferences were not as scripted as some may have expected -- and President Bush was usually willing to entertain a politely shouted question or two. And while we usually had an idea of the line of questions we could expect, we never knew for sure. Any of the reporters called on could ask anything they wanted, and that's as it should be.

DAN RATHER

Host and managing editor of HDNet's "Dan Rather Reports"; CBS reporter for 44 years

How a first-term president handles things such as news conferences will evolve over time.

We, press and public alike, might focus on what we can do to make these events meaningful. A few questions we might ask ourselves:

Do the reporters who are called upon ask tough questions? Do they ask the necessary follow-up questions? If these questions go unanswered, will reporters show some solidarity of purpose by following up on others' questions -- even it means discarding their own prepared questions? And do members of the White House press corps behave as if they understand themselves to be asking a question of a fellow citizen, for their fellow citizens -- with respect for the office of the presidency and without a deference unbecoming a free people?

Will the public, if it perceives that certain news organizations or reporters are being favored or shut out, use its First Amendment rights to demand that the president call on a broader list? Will the public insist on frequent and regular news conferences? And will the people show their understanding of and support for a White House press corps that is not afraid to ask the president tough questions? Conversely, will they hold journalists accountable for softball questions or non-answers that go unchallenged?

In my experience -- and I have been among those jockeying to ask questions at presidential news conferences -- presidents will do whatever they can to gain control over their message. It is up to citizens and journalists to exercise our rights and do all in our power to hold presidents, including this one, accountable. Democracy is not a spectator sport.


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