White House press corps feels bypassed by Obama in favor of TV shows, YouTube

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; C01

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."

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."

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