The Prez, The Press, The Pressure
Networks Grouse About Obama in Prime Time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.

Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the company spun off from Viacom.

Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months. But network executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the current economic downturn.

The networks "absolutely" feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president: "It's an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used."

While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, "there was nothing" at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. "There hardly ever is these days, because there's so much coverage all the time."

Had Obama not answered the last question that evening -- declaring that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates at his home -- the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news. And that raises questions about whether the sessions have become mainly a vehicle for Obama to repeat familiar messages.

Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says Obama "is at risk of overexposure" and suggests the sessions are losing their novelty.

"Every time a president holds a press conference there is potential for news to be made, as he did, probably to his regret, with his comments on the Gates case," Whitaker says. Still, he says, "we would feel better" if White House officials "were approaching us with the sense that they had something new to say, rather than that they just wanted to continue a dialogue with the American people. There are other ways of continuing that dialogue than taking up an hour of prime time."

Sarah Feinberg, Emanuel's spokeswoman, says that after press secretary Robert Gibbs heard that network officials had concerns about programming conflicts, "Rahm made a round of calls to network executives to discuss ways the White House could accommodate concerns." The upshot was that the news conference was moved up an hour, to 8 p.m. -- a boon to NBC, which had a 9 p.m. special featuring overnight British singing star Susan Boyle.

Emanuel tried to create a sense of momentum -- calling Disney's Iger last, for instance, and saying he had secured agreement from the other two networks.

Some calls had little impact. Emanuel reached GE's Immelt, a member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, after learning that NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker was traveling. But Immelt told him that it was Zucker's decision, and a subsequent call to Zucker yielded an agreement that NBC would provide live coverage.

Tensions have been building behind the scenes. Some television executives say the Bush administration informally floated possible news conference dates in advance, while Obama officials basically notify the networks of their plans. Such an approach prompted calls between White House officials and the top executives at each network, and a meeting between Gibbs and the Washington bureau chiefs.

But little changed. White House officials essentially dictated the timing when they decided to hold an evening session on the 100th day of Obama's term and again on July 22. In that instance, network executives say, the White House announced the event on its Twitter feed less than an hour after informing them.

Since the Reagan era, when cable news was in its infancy, prime-time presidential pressers have been a relative rarity. George H.W. Bush held one in 1992, but the broadcast networks dismissed it as an election-year event and refused to carry it. The following year, when Bill Clinton held his first evening news conference, CBS and ABC stiffed him; NBC carried the first half-hour; only CNN and PBS aired the whole thing. George W. Bush held four such events in eight years.

But the networks have deemed Obama a box-office draw, featuring him on everything from "60 Minutes" to "The Tonight Show" to a 90-minute ABC town meeting on health care.

Ari Fleischer, a former Bush press secretary, says the 43rd president didn't like evening news conferences -- "he thought they became more about the reporters than about him" -- but that scheduling was crucial. Once, he says, "we scheduled something on a Thursday and NBC went crazy," because several of its hits were on that night.

"Frankly, it's commercial," Fleischer says. If it's not a big night for the networks, he says, "they put civic duty and pride first. But you don't go up against 'American Idol' -- not even Barack Obama."

Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's first White House press secretary, says ABC and CBS rejected her first prime-time request in 1993 on grounds that the press conference was "not news."

"With Obama," she says, "everyone wants to have a relationship with the president because he's been good for ratings. I've been impressed by how easily they seem to be able to roadblock an hour. No other president in TV history would have been able to do it."

The financial stakes are considerable. ABC, CBS and NBC have given up as much as $40 million in advertising revenue to carry this year's East Room events. "We lose more than $3 million a show," Moonves told Mediaweek. The Fox broadcast network has declined to carry the last two Obama sessions.

Every president exercises considerable control over his encounters with reporters, picking on selected journalists and deflecting questions he doesn't like. But Obama's discursive style has also tended to depress the news value of the sessions.

He began the last one with an eight-minute opening statement. His answer to the first question, including a follow-up, lasted more than seven minutes. All told, the lengthy responses allowed time for only 10 reporters to be recognized. And Obama's professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines.

One result: The audience is gradually dwindling. The last presser drew 24 million viewers, a significant number but a 50 percent decline from Obama's first such event in February.

The lingering question is how much of an obligation the networks have to carry these news conferences, given that they're widely available on the cable news channels.

One of the broadcast networks could demonstrate its independence, Friedman says, by breaking with the pack and refusing to air Obama's next prime-time extravaganza. But, he says, "that would take an extraordinary amount of courage."

Toxic In-Box

Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham had the e-mail that got a police officer suspended for a racial slur against Henry Louis Gates but never wrote the story.

The reason, she wrote last week, was that it was among a steady stream of "baldly racist" messages she received after opining on the Harvard professor's arrest, and was an "anonymous rant," to boot. The message from Officer Justin Barrett "didn't even stand out" until the Boston Herald disclosed the e-mail, which Barrett also sent to friends.

"When somebody begins with insults, racial epithets, or both, I hit the delete button," Abraham wrote. "I might have gotten as far as that first reference comparing Gates to a 'banana-eating jungle monkey.' I didn't make it to the part where he calls me a fool and an infidel."

Getting Tipsy

Tabloid headline writers usually come up with better puns than everyone else, but they were flat after the much-hyped White House beer summit:

"BREW-HAHA" -- Friday's New York Post

"BREW-HAHA" -- Friday's Daily News

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company