White House press corps feels bypassed by Obama in favor of TV shows, YouTube
Monday, February 8, 2010
Six months ago, network executives were complaining that the White House was costing them tens of millions of dollars by pressing them to carry presidential news conferences in prime time.
Problem solved: President Obama hasn't held a full-scale news conference since July. Instead, he answered a dozen people's questions last week on YouTube, most of them easily finessed and -- extra bonus! -- no annoying follow-ups of the kind posed by real, live journalists.
It would be hard -- impossible, actually -- to argue that Obama hasn't been accessible to the media, not with his constant television interviews. The man has even done color commentary at a Georgetown basketball game. But the decision to bypass the White House press corps is no accident.
"It's a source of great frustration here," says Chip Reid, CBS's White House correspondent. "It's important for us to hold the president's feet to the fire."
NBC White House reporter Chuck Todd calls the situation a "shame," saying the administration is trying to control the message rather than allowing Obama to be seen "unscripted."
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, counters: "We have probably done more interviews with more reporters at this point in our presidency than anybody else has. We have hardly been a shrinking violet when it comes to turning on your TV and seeing Barack Obama." The president, he says, finds news conferences to be an "important way of communicating," but the next one will be during the day, carried only on cable, not in prime time. "We get that going to that well too many times doesn't make sense for anybody," Gibbs says.
Communications director Dan Pfeiffer adds that "not doing press conferences is equated with not taking questions, and that's not true." While the best way for a president to reach the public in the past was "through the reporters sitting in the first three rows of the White House pressroom. . . . there's no question that the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and their conservative counterparts can drive a story as well as the traditional powers at the New York Times and Washington Post."
Both men argued that it was riskier for Obama to take questions at town hall meetings, through YouTube and in that extraordinary dialogue with House Republicans than in the traditional news-conference setting. The public's queries, Pfeiffer says, are "no less serious and no less tough than from the credentialed White House press corps." Reporters, however, narrowly tailor their questions and press about past inconsistencies.
Obama held news conferences in February, March, April, June and July, four of them East Room extravaganzas at 8 p.m. He fielded questions easily and confidently and was widely seen as a natural.
But the July 22 session underscored how the administration can lose control of the story line. During a news conference devoted almost entirely to health-care reform, Obama answered a final question about the arrest of his friend Henry Louis Gates -- he said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" -- and the resulting flap dominated the news for a week.
Still, a press corps that periodically complained about George W. Bush's infrequent news conferences should not let Obama walk away from the practice unchallenged. And some of its members have protested. Reid raised the issue with Gibbs at a briefing last month, and Hearst columnist Helen Thomas said the president has "gone an obscenely long time, not holding one."
Gibbs responded to Reid by saying that the last time the subject came up, "you all, to a person, reminded me of our dramatic overexposure."