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REFLECTIONS: Press Conferences

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


There is a reason reporters, especially on television, let guests whom they interview get away with lies – as when CNN’s John King failed to contradict Mary Matalin Carville when she said there had been no terrorist attacks during George Bush’s presidency. And ABC’s George Stephanopoulus was silent (and later apologized) when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the same lie.

I think that’s because television has made entertainers out of too many of us.

During my time reporting on presidents, from Lyndon Johnson through Bill Clinton, I came to dislike those televised East Room press conferences at the White House. For over the years, they came to epitomize the news business as entertainment with the supporting roles willingly played by the press.

For one thing, they rarely produced real news unless it was inadvertent, as when Richard Nixon answered a question in November 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal with the assertion, “I’m not a crook.”

That actually took place during a lengthy question-and-answer session, mostly on Watergate, at an editors’ meeting, not at the White House. I remember that Dan Rather was the aggressive questioner.

For the most part, the stories out of the White House news conferences merely reported and reflected the message the president wanted his audience to hear. And most of the coverage was straight stenography. In my bureau, to its credit, at least one of us would be assigned to critique the conference and analyze, on the basis of reporting, what lay behind what the president said and what it meant. But that practice died at many newspapers for lack of space or reportorial know-how.

I also had little use for these (and most other ) presidential news conferences because if I was working on an exclusive story, I didn’t want to share my information with others; instead I probed knowledgeable sources on Capitol Hill, or inside the White House, or I asked the press secretary to put my question to the president.

Besides, it was difficult at a televised press conference to prod and poke the president with challenging, argumentative questions which was my style. It would have been frowned on, even by colleagues, as disrespectful.

During a Ronald Reagan press conference, a radio reporter who is now a prominent television personality, asked the president, why, if he was interested in peace as he had said, did he send several warships to patrol the waters of a Latin American nation that was defying the U.S.? Later, one of her bosses who had watched the press conference called to tell her: “Your job is to find out how many ships he’s sending, rather than questioning his policy.”

When President Nixon called a press conference amid nationwide student protests at news that he had widened the Vietnam War into Cambodia, a colleague waiting for the president in the East Room whispered to me, “I’m going to ask him what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I told her I’d back her up with a similar question, but we both chickened out. He was the president, after all.

Presidents have not always been treated kindly by televised press conferences. Johnson, who was personable, strong and persuasive in one-on-one encounters with reporters, came across as uncomfortable and insincere in press conferences. Nixon was under siege and acted like it as he grappled with the expanding Vietnam War and mass protests during his first term and a series of scandals ending in Watergate.

In those days, before the television networks became dominant, the news conference began with the president recognizing the two major wire services, the Associated Press and United Press International, for the first questions. (Helen Thomas of UPI could always be counted on to ask the most pertinent question). Then reporters leaped to their feet, shouting, “Mr. President,” and pleading for recognition. It was a chaotic scene.

That changed with Reagan because he was so taken aback by the shouting, he didn’t know whom to choose. So his press handlers, mostly David Gergen, laid down a new rule. Reporters were asked to stay silent in their seats and raise their hands for recognition. Reagan, we learned, seemed to be partial to the color in red so many of the women in the press corps wore red to his news conferences and it worked.

Later, Gergen gave Reagan a chart showing where reporters were sitting so he could call on those whom the White House preferred. Gergen also changed the location of the podium in the East Room so that the president could stroll directly to it down the red carpet and not have to mix with shouting reporters on his way in or out. It was much more civilized, but it was a step towards turning the press conference into a scripted performance. (Reagan was easily flustered as when he admitted the truth of the charge that his administration had traded arms for hostages held in Iran.)

But every president since has adopted the Reagan setting, which was done strictly for the camera – as well as for the protection of the president from the press whose howling questions were stilled.

Thus has evolved the increasing importance and presence of television, first with the three major networks and then cable. And many local stations sent their crews to the White House, adding to the pack in the press room and the news conferences with equipment and reporters, most of whom sought to be stars.

In such an atmosphere, the White House press was tamed at the news conferences and I don’t remember a time when the president was challenged or provoked with questions on policies. That docility seems to have been carried over even outside the press conferences partly because, as I learned, there are consequences.

When I was younger and didn’t know any better, I got into an argument at a press conference with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist who threatened the “Freedom Riders” who were on the way to the state in 1961, after they encountered violence in Alabama. Barnett ended the conference and I was blamed.

In 1995, I was in Atlanta doing a piece on then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich when the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building was the big news. I confronted Gingrich, after he had denounced the bombing, and asked him pointedly if his constant anti-government rhetoric created a climate for the bombing. He pounced on me and so did the local press.

In 2004, Irish television reporter Carole Coleman nearly created an international incident with her 12-minute interview with President George W. Bush when she dared to interrupt him when he dodged her sharp and repeated questions about his justifications for the Iraq war. The White House protested and canceled her scheduled interview with Mrs. Bush.

But now, more than ever – at a time when the press is losing its newspapers and its way – reporters need to ask pointed, impertinent questions: “Mr. President, why do you seem to back away from every fight and retreat on the public option, the closing of Guantanamo, rendition, don’t ask don’t tell? Did you make a deal with the drug industry, which just raised prices?”

For the liberal darlings Representative Barney Frank, and Senator Chris Dodd: How come you have not been able to move to restore Glass-Steagall? Why have you allowed the banks to make billions going back to their old ways?”

For right-wingers like Representative James DeMint, who said the president has never used the word terror in the face of evidence that he had: “Why do you and your allies lie about this president? Do you have no respect for the office? If so, how have you shown it?”

And to the press: “Why do you take seriously and without challenge the most outrageous assertions about this administration?”

It is true that commentators like Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow ask good and argumentative questions of guests. But they are mostly aimed at people who expect to play their straw man roles.

As Matthews and Maddow point out, no reporter has confronted former Vice President Cheney with his record of being dangerously wrong. Fox News interviewers have yet to challenge any of Cheney’s assertions. On the contrary, when the reporters from the online Politico interviewed Cheney, they simply listened. When George Bush’s spokeswoman Dana Perino said, on television, that there had been no terrorist attacks on Bush’s watch, she wasn’t challenged.

That, of course, is not journalism. But it’s not entertainment either.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Charlotte Alexander: Teaneck and Tadpoles


Comments

The wisdom of your observations is indisputable. People delivering "news" on TV--cable or network--are in show business, not news business. Indeed, the whole of public service itself is trending in the same direction. Witness the election of a telegenic, literal pinup poster boy to assume the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy. I see only one way to blunt--not stop or reverse, just blunt--this all-wrong trend: public financing of congressional and presidential elections, primaries included. Otherwise, we will see more and more beauties with capped teeth, good bones, and lots of hair covering hollow skulls running for office, then running the "show."

When I read your post, I wonder what’s happened to those other people like yourself. Where are they today?

And Barry, thank you for your comment regarding the Massachusetts election. I could not have said it any better.

Helen Thomas is the last of a dying breed. When she is called on she asks probing questions and that's why George Bush never called on her and sent her to the back of the room.

I think the reason Dan Rather was let go was not because of his lack of investigation on the false documentation on Bush, but that provided an excuse to get rid of the last real Journalist on TV.

How DID George Orwell get so prescient?

Newspeak..take a word from column A, one from column B and one from column C...Oldspeak (good principled journalism)has been effectively banished.

And I couldn't have said it better than Thomas Pynchon:

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.

I wonder how much Ted Turner and his 24-hours-news service contributed to the problem. Nowadays, in the race to rating poles, straight news like Douglas Edwards and Walter Cronkite presented not only lead to the constant race of tv ratings and advertising dollar. Now big business influences not just our "news" but led to Fox News. Everything went downhill from there. I could go on, but it's too depressing and nothing new anyway. (Feels good to get it off my chest now and then anyhow.) Thanks for a great post. We are not alone.

I really appreciate your getting your experience with the decay of reporting into showbiz on the record. That, too, is reporting.

There's a difference between probing and being argumentative - whether you're a news reporter, a US president, or the average person on the street. Argument, for the sake of argument alone, can be destructive and detract from the true issue. Probing, though, can gently encourage truth to be displayed for all to see.

I see foresee a number of unintended side effects with the decline of print culure, not the least of which is a society who gives credence to such irresponsible journalism.

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