“Excuse me, sir,” President Barack Obama said when a reporter from the Daily Caller Web site interrupted his news conference last week on immigration. “It’s not time for questions, sir. Not while I’m speaking.”
As Matt Negrin of ABC News pointed out, in this White House, it’s rarely time for questions. Negrin cites research from Martha Kumar of Towson University that Obama had held only 17 solo news conferences as of February, fewer at that point in his presidency than Bill Clinton (31), George H.W. Bush (56) or Ronald Reagan (21), though more than George W. Bush (11).
The data is even starker if you consider “impromptu” encounters with reporters. On that measure, Obama took questions 94 times, fewer than Bush Jr. (307), Clinton (493), Bush Sr. (263) or Reagan (120).
The one measure on which Obama leads his predecessors is in actual interviews. At the time of Kumar’s count, Obama had given 408. That’s about three times as many as George W. Bush (136) had given at a similar point in his presidency, and about two-and-a-half times as many as Reagan (164) or Clinton (166).
Mitt Romney has also been less than an open book. In February, reporters Ashley Parker and Michael Barbaro, who cover Romney’s presidential campaign for The New York Times, wrote “a news conference with Mitt Romney is an exceedingly rare occurrence, enough so that his traveling press corps tracks the time that elapses between them.” At that point, it had been three weeks since Romney’s last presser.
Nor has Romney been granting many interviews. His appearance last Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer was his first on a show that wasn’t “Fox News Sunday” during this campaign cycle.
As a journalist, I should be especially outraged by the decline in news conferences and the turn to tightly controlled environments -- one-on-one interviews or, worse, one-on-one interviews in friendly, partisan news outlets. Our elected leaders, and those who seek to replace them, owe the public vastly more detailed explanations of policy and governing philosophy than they’re providing.
I believe that. What I don’t believe is that the public is deriving much benefit from the few news conferences and impromptu question-and-answer sessions that do occur.
Two weeks ago, Obama gave a news conference arguing that the fractures in the euro area and the slowdown in developing economies have added urgency to the need for more tax cuts, infrastructure spending and support for local governments to protect the weakening recovery. I haven’t seen a poll on this, but I suspect that approximately zero percent of the country knows what that news conference was about. Obama’s argument was entirely overshadowed by coverage of his inartful phrase: “The private sector is fine.”
Let’s consider that line: What was the news value of “the private sector is fine”? Did it augur a change in administration policy? It did not. In fact, the news conference was all about Obama’s renewed call for support for the economy. Did anyone in the news media really think that Obama believes the economy -- public or private -- is growing as he’d like it to be? No.
Rather, the news value was derived from journalists hypothesizing that Republicans would use Obama’s statement to attack the president. This quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Republicans became much more likely to exploit the quote after the media collectively deemed it “a gaffe,” and Republican news releases and ads featuring the attack received much more coverage after the media had decided the gaffe was “a story.” That, in turn, gave Republicans much more reason to flood the zone with attacks. In effect, the news value of the gaffe was self-reinforcing, with the predicted partisan attacks taking place in part because a path was cleared by the media’s prediction of attacks.
Almost the exact same analysis can be applied to any of Romney’s “gaffes.” Take the time he said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” The line emerged in a discussion of the type of health-care market Romney would like to see, one in which consumers “choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation.” He was making two serious policy points: One, that insurance should be based on individuals rather than on employers, and two, that it should be sold across state lines. The media didn’t cover either point. Even if Romney hadn’t misspoken, it’s doubtful either point would have received wide notice.
Instead, Romney’s poor phrasing made headlines across the nation. Why? Again, few people (and fewer journalists) truly think Romney takes pleasure in firing people, much less that he was announcing a “fire everybody!” economic policy. The media simply anticipated that Romney’s political opponents would use the remark against him.
As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote, “It’s obviously true that political campaigns will take their opponents’ statements out of context. That is probably unavoidable. The key step I’m focusing on here is when the journalist internalizes the work of the oppo researcher. Perhaps, in the end, the dumbest, least fair, most context-free interpretation of the line will ultimately prevail. But when journalists assume this will happen and make no effort to fight against that process, we go from merely reporting on the stupidity of politics to becoming accomplices of it.”
We also reduce the amount of useful information politicians offer to the public, making our jobs harder in the long term. What Obama no doubt learned from his “gaffe” news conference is that he shouldn’t do many news conferences. The downside risk of a poorly phrased, extemporaneous comment vastly outweighs the likelihood that whatever serious message he seeks to convey will make it through the media’s filter. What Romney learned from Obama’s news conference is that, if he’s lucky enough to become president, he shouldn’t do many news conferences, either. The sad part is, both politicians probably learned the right lesson -- at least for their purposes.
Perhaps the more troubling question is, what did the American public learn from the news conferences? Nothing. If anything, the public was misled about what the leaders were truly saying. That is to say, the result of our coverage of these press conferences and Q&As was that voters ended up knowing less than they did before. That’s the saddest part of all.