Media Harder On President This Time

President Obama held a prime-time news conference Tuesday addressing the economic recession, his administration's recovery strategy, and other current events during the first 60 days of his presidency.Video by AP
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

President Obama declined to call on any reporters from the nation's top newspapers during last night's news conference but still faced far more aggressive questioning than in his first prime-time encounter with the media.

Breaking with tradition and using a prepared list, Obama did not recognize journalists with The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today -- the last four of which were not picked at last month's news conference, either. Instead, he called on reporters for Ebony magazine, Stars and Stripes, Univision, and Agence France-Presse.

The president did stick to the usual rotation in recognizing correspondents from ABC, CBS and NBC, along with CNN and Fox News. He also took questions from the Washington Times and Politico. The result was a nearly hour-long session focused almost entirely on domestic policy.

Obama made clear during the transition that he did not plan to follow the usual journalistic pecking order. As president, he has broken with precedent by having his press office notify correspondents that they will be called on at upcoming news conferences. The more unorthodox approach was highlighted at his first evening session, when he took a question from a correspondent for the Huffington Post, a liberal Web magazine.

Obama's selection process last night did not result in softball inquiries. Ebony's Kevin Chappell cited a report that one in 50 children in the United States is homeless and asked what Obama would say to their families. Kevin Baron of Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, asked how the president would trim the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs budgets "when so many items that seem destined for the chopping block are politically untenable, perhaps."

The ailing economy dominated the session, to no one's surprise, and only two questions were focused solely on foreign affairs. The Univision reporter asked whether violence in Mexico spilling into the United States should be considered a national security threat, and the Agence France-Presse reporter asked about the Middle East peace process.

The president was not asked about either of the nation's wars, despite his recent announcement that he is sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and plans to withdraw most U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010. Those subjects, and the battle against terrorism, often dominated President George W. Bush's face-offs with the media. But that probably reflected the degree to which the economy and the banking crisis have dominated the news in recent months, rather than the selection of the journalists.

Virtually every correspondent was granted a follow-up question, which was often more sharply worded than the first. Obama now has a budget to defend and has faced rising criticism for his handling of the banking bailout, giving journalists more specific targets for their queries.

Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, the wire service that traditionally gets to pose the opening question, cited the administration's plan to seek authority over non-banking financial institutions and asked, "Why should the public trust the government to handle that authority well?" NBC's Chuck Todd said that "some of your programs, whether for Main Street or Wall Street, have actually cushioned the blow for those that were irresponsible." CBS's Chip Reid said that "some Republicans called your budget, with all the spending on health care, education and environment, the most irresponsible budget in American history." CNN's Ed Henry asked Obama whether he worried "that your daughters, not to mention the next president, will be inheriting an even bigger fiscal mess if the spending goes out of control."

Perhaps the sharpest exchange followed Henry's second question, when he pressed Obama on why it took days for him to publicly express outrage over the $165 million in bonuses granted to employees of American International Group.

"It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," the president shot back.

Jon Ward of the Washington Times, whose conservative editorial page has consistently criticized Obama, asked about the president's decision to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a subject that quickly faded from the mainstream media despite years of divisive debate. Ward asked "how much you personally wrestled with the morality or ethics of federally funding this kind of research." The president said it had been a difficult decision.

Fox's Major Garrett asked whether Obama, who as a candidate expressed concern about the nation's global image, was comfortable with objections to his economic policies by the Chinese government, "run by communists," and European governments, "some of them socialist."

Despite casting a wider net at news conferences and appearing last week on ESPN and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," Obama can hardly be accused of bypassing traditional news organizations. He has granted interviews to the network anchors, the New York Times, the Washington Post editorial board, groups of columnists and regional reporters, and black and Hispanic journalists. On Friday, he spent 90 minutes with Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes."

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