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White House press corps feels bypassed by Obama in favor of TV shows, YouTube
In recent weeks, the president has talked to ABC's Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson, Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" and at Sunday's Super Bowl with CBS's Katie Couric. Each has pressed him on various issues; Obama admitted to Sawyer that he had made a "legitimate mistake" by promising that all health-care negotiations would be televised on C-SPAN. But with strict time limits and a natural effort by the anchors to touch on several subjects, Obama has a built-in advantage.
The president has also chatted up Oprah Winfrey and sat down with a handful of print organizations, including The Washington Post, New York Times, People magazine and Time columnist Joe Klein. He held the traditional off-the-record lunch with the anchors and Sunday morning hosts on the day of the State of the Union, but also spoke on the record when he dined with foreign-policy columnists.
In practice, no single news organization can cover the ground of a 45-minute Q&A with newspapers, wire services, magazines, television, radio and bloggers, seen live on the air.
"What's lost is the ability to get beyond talking points," says Michael Shear, a White House reporter for The Post. "This is a president and White House that know how to be very scripted and very on message. . . . Frankly, we make our living studying and following details of these issues so we can zero our questions in on where the real tension lies in a particular issue."
Obama has talked to correspondents at occasional press "avails" overseas. While he has taken as many as a half-dozen or more questions, that figure has been shrinking, and if a foreign leader is present, the American side may get just one or two chances.
Todd says that while he and other network correspondents have been granted short interviews abroad, there is no time for wide-ranging questions on, say, Iran or the Middle East. "All these pre-set interviews, they try to attach them to a specific topic," he says.
Every president attempts to circumvent the press corps, viewing it as obsessed with process stories and "gotcha" questions. That's not exactly fair -- they do traffic in substance -- but talk shows have provided an easier forum since the days when Bill Clinton first went on Larry King and MTV. Obama, for his part, is the first Internet president, with his radio addresses on YouTube, videos on Whitehouse.gov and official photos on Flickr. There's a White House blog, and deputy press secretary Bill Burton has been weighing in on Twitter.
But while the administration may view televised news conferences as very 20th century -- Jack Kennedy began the practice in 1961 -- it remains a valuable tradition. It would be ironic if the president who seemed to win over the media while running for office were to wind up stiff-arming those who cover him most closely.
In the Fox's den
You can't accuse Bill O'Reilly of keeping his critics out of his self-proclaimed No-Spin Zone.
In sparring with Jon Stewart last week, the Fox News host allowed the acerbic comedian to swing away at the self-proclaimed fair-and-balanced network.
O'Reilly asked Stewart about my column last week on the "Daily Show" host taking more comedic jabs at the president (though he mischaracterized it as my telling Stewart "you're being too tough on Barack Obama"). Stewart said he doesn't "take any of that stuff seriously" and that he doesn't think about his targets' reaction because "whatever you say, someone's not going to like it."
As for Fox, while O'Reilly insisted that "only a couple of guys" are harsh on Obama, Stewart said the channel has "been able to mainstream conservative talk radio" and turn reasonable concerns about the administration "into full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao."
He had gentler words for O'Reilly, sort of: "You have become the voice of sanity here, which is like being the thinnest kid at fat camp."
Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."