The president called it "Reagan roulett." Time correspondent Larry Barrett said it was "ridiculous," and NBC's Bill Lynch termed it "capriciousness by design." Susan King of ABC, the token television correspondent who asked a question, said it removed the spontaneity of presidential news conferences.
"It" was the new lottery system of asking questions, which Reagan introduced yesterday at the second news conference of his administration. Except for two initial questions traditionally allowed the wire services, the order of questions was determined beforehand by Reagan's drawing names from an old jellybean jar.
While most of the reporters present didn't like the new system, it provided a crisp and fast-paced format for Reagan, who breezed through 19 questions in a half hour, peppering his remarks with one-liners appearing to enjoy himself thoroughly.
The lottery was supposed to give the many news organizations which cover the White House an equal chance to be recognized, minimizing domination by television networks and the big national newspapers. The luck of the draw helped accomplish this purpose when the networks were shut out in the original drawing Thursday.
Anticipating that reporters might not show up if they had no chance of being recognized, White House press secretary James S. Brady reserved a handful of places in the questioning order for names that were drawn out of a jar, like door prizes, just before the news conference. One reporter suggested that the White House could sweeten the pot next time by also offering a typewriter.
Judy Woodruff of NBC and Walt Rogers of AP radio left the news conference room when their names weren't drawn. Sam Donaldson of ABC, another non-fan of the lottery, and NBC's Lynch chose not to come at all.
There are lots of serious arguments against the lottery, especially the one offered by King that much spontaneity is lost.But the most forthright evaluation was probably that given by Lesley Stahl of CBS, who said, "I don't like the new system because my name wasn't drawn."
Stahl took her usual front-row seat despite being 40th on the list and having no chance of being called upon.
The format of network news virtually requires that a network correspondent be shown on camera asking the president a question. Until Reagan and Brady came along, this is one of the reasons that presidents and press secretaries have been reluctant to tinker with the system.
But the Reagan press office was armed with a thoughtful report assembled by the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. At Reagan's first news conference he adopted a major recommendation of this body requiring reporters to sit and be recognized by show of hands rather than jumping to their feet and shouting for attention.
This change is likely to become a permanent feature of Reagan news conferences, even though the lottery may not have survived yesterday's session. c
In fact, though Reagan seems to like the lottery, he also was confused at times by the new format. He called on one Associated Press reporter who had already asked a question, then corrected himself. Another time he said he kept waiting for reporters to raise their hands.
When all was said and done, however, Reagan was asked roughly the same number of questions on the same subjects and gave the same answers he would have done under any format. And the president offered his own apostrophe to the system during the first drawing, after Brady told him it was designed to help "the little people" in the press corps.
The first name drawn by Reagan from the jellybean jar was that of Newsweek correspondent Tom DeFrank. The second was that of Tim Schellhardt of The Wall Street Journal, prompting Reagan to remark, "I'm glad to see that the little people are getting a chance."