On days when the president is coming, the White House press room, the East Room and even occasionally the Rose Garden are ornamented with dozens of objects that perform the decorative and utilitarian purpose of potted plants.
They are members of the prestigious White House press corps (a gaggle in which I also plied my craft for many years). These elite journalists are there ostensibly as key participants in a venerated institutional event: a presidential news conference. Much has changed over the years, as the White House sought to end the news-conference clamor of journalists vying to be called on next. But mostly, it has changed for the worst.
For starters, only a few correspondents have been pre-selected by the president’s advisers to ask questions of their boss. One by one, President Barack Obama calls the names of the chosen questioners from his advisers’ list. All the others on this famous news beat are pre-positioned to be seen but not heard.
That’s one big reason why the follow-up question — that crucial Q&A tool for informing the public — has all but gone the way of dinosaurs and running boards.
But perhaps the most flagrant ceding of journalistic influence in this institution has come from the journalists themselves.
Now, when almost every chosen correspondent recites a question, it is rarely just one question. Often it is hydra-headed, covering several unrelated topics. That’s self-defeating, because the reporter allows the president to pick and choose what to answer and what to avoid. The most famous journalists are often flagrant offenders. Their names don’t really matter; but what they fail to accomplish does.
On May 13 in the ornate East Room, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron held a joint news conference. The first reporter asked Obama about the Internal Revenue Service scandal and Benghazi — and tacked on a question to Cameron on Syria. Naturally, that allowed Obama to choose the bits he wanted to focus on and ignore the rest.
On May 16 in the Rose Garden, at another joint news conference (with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), the first questioner Obama called upon asked about the IRS, Israel and Gaza. The IRS part would have been a fine follow-up three days earlier, when Obama said he learned of the IRS probe from news stories reporting that the IRS targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, but not progressive groups.
“Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency’s actions before your counsel’s office found out on April 22?” a reporter asked.
When Obama responded, “Let me make sure that I answer your specific question,” journalists who know interviewing sensed a tipoff that he might do nothing of the sort.
“I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the (inspector general) report before the IG report had been leaked through the press,” Obama said — ignoring the question of whether his advisers knew.
This week, the White House acknowledged Obama’s top advisers, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, learned of the IRS probe from White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler — but didn’t tell Obama about the scandal that soon would become his next political exploding cigar.
In his May 13 answer concerning the IRS, Obama also spoke at length about the attacks on Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three others. He stacked up apparent inconsistencies that all but cried for follow-up clarification that correspondents never sought. In one humongous answer, Obama shifted from the IRS to the Benghazi attack of Sept. 11, 2012.
“The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism,” Obama declared — but then also said: “What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were. ... Keep in mind, by the way, these so-called talking points that were prepared for (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) Susan Rice five, six days after the event occurred pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time in my presidential daily briefing.”
Say what? Rice’s television talking points carefully downplayed the prospect of terrorism.
The presidential news conference has declined but not yet fallen. The good news is the decline can be reversed. Collaborative rethink and a common-sense return to basics can revitalize the entwined interests of good journalism and democracy.
After all, while the White House press corps covers forever fertile ground, it is no place for potted plants.