On one side of the podium stood the leader of the free world. On the other side, the presumably elite representatives of the world’s freest press, with a world of facts at their fingertips.
And between them, as always, a host of crises, controversies, misstatements and mistakes were demanding their rightful place in democracy’s spotlight — right now! This was, after all, the latest exercise of that infrequent democratic institution known as the presidential press conference. ’Twas the Friday before Christmas, and all through the press room that Richard Nixon built atop of what once was the pool where JFK used to swim famously al fresco, a roomful of journalists was interrogating President Barack Obama with all the intensity and incisiveness that has made the White House press corps what it is today.
“Has this been the worst year of your presidency?” “What do you think has been your biggest mistake?” “If I may just quickly, on a more personal note, what is your New Year’s resolution?” For when it comes to pithy parody and satire, television’s late night comedy writers can’t match the comedic touch and timing of the Obama era presidential press conference. But wait — that non-zinger about the president’s New Year’s resolution could have potential for us all. Usually, there’s nothing as tree-wasting as yet another list of New Year’s resolutions. But this might be a bad idea that’s time has come.
DECLINE AND FALL
We have been witnessing the decline and fall of the presidential press conference as an institution of democracy and governance. And as one who covered presidents and their presidencies in years past, I know that our professionalism runs in cycles, much like that of the politicians we cover. And now we journalists are failing in our mission of seeking to put a president on the record about just what is happening and why it is happening.
So today let’s propose one bold 2014 New Year’s resolution — a resolution specially tailored for the president and the White House press corps. Let 2014 be the year when those two erstwhile adversaries separately rethink and restore the professionalism that has been missing in their press conference performances.
First, both sides must recognize where they have jointly gone wrong. The president and press corps can start by reading past press conference transcripts. They will discover that on both sides of the podium, the press and the president have been wandering around before getting to the point. Also, reporters on the White House beat seem to have forgotten what they knew before they arrived at this elite White House beat: The best way to get a productive answer is to ask a concise, well-researched question that sticks to just one subject. And ask just one question.
Rambling, multi-part questions abound. It is the journalistic equivalent of handing the president a baseball and fungo bat and telling him to just hit it anywhere he wants. At the last press conference, one respected journalist actually asked what pretended to be a two part question — but it began with Obama’s false health care promise that people can keep their policies and doctors if they like them, and then went on to ask about Iran sanctions.
NEEDED PINNING DOWN
But the president needed to be pinned down on his health care program’s failures. Reporters only needed to ask him about recent front page news. Example: A Washington Post report about a fellow named John Gisler. He couldn’t get continued coverage for his critically ill son under Obama’s health care program after his policy was ended due to the program. Reporters could have asked: Why did your administration permit this to happen to Mr. Gisler’s son and the many thousands of others with a similar problem? What can you do to fix their problems immediately?
Or: The page one coverage of middle class citizens that found their income is just above the cutoff for federal health care subsidies for lower income citizens — so Obama’s Affordable Care Act now requires them to pay 50 percent more for health care insurance than they used to pay. Is that the way Obama wanted his program to work? Did he know his program would hurt the most those who can least afford it? What will he now say to those who have been hurt most by his program?
Our job as reporters is to make sure public officials are held accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. Whether at city hall, or the county zoning board, or the White House, our job is the same.
When we do it right, by focusing on facts and not our performing art, press conferences become important institutions of our democracy.