President Obama holds a prime-time press conference tomorrow night to mark his 100th day in office, and if the major news organizations really want to make it interesting, they won’t send their White House corrrespondents.
No, I’m not suggesting a boycott. What I’m proposing is that, depending on what they want to probe, news organizations should send the beat reporters — or even columnists — who have the deepest knowledge and expertise in the subject at hand.
This would not only result in more probing questions, but more thoughtful and challenging follow-ups. What I want to see are tough, detailed exchanges driven by people who really know what they’re talking about and aren’t too intimidated to push back and drill down when necessary.
So if the New York Times or The Washington Post decide that their top priority tomorrow night is to probe Obama about his highly speculative bank bailout proposals, they should send someone who could really mix it up with the president — like Paul Krugman, or Steven Pearlstein.
If they decide the most important thing is to pin Obama down on his views on accountability for torture, they should send Scott Shane, or Joby Warrick.
If the goal is getting Obama to explain his thinking on complicated policy matters, to push him beyond the things he’s said before, to call him out when he’s being vague, or he’s exaggerating, or he’s just dead wrong — then it’s time to call in the experts.
White House correspondents, by contrast, are generalists — and most of them are former political reporters. They tend to focus on how politically effective the president is being rather than whether he is intellectually consistent, whether his positions are realistic, and whether his explanations are sufficient. They are also beholden to the press office for the continued access they need to do their jobs.
I’m not saying, by the way, that Obama’s previous two prime-time press conferences were a total loss. He was commanding and resolute at his first, on February 9. He deftly used his second, on March 24, to move past the executive-bonus hysteria and return the public’s attention to the long-term economic problems he is addressing.
He’s always erudite and articulate — such a change from his predecessor. But he also tends not to say anything new. His talking points, as it were, are vastly more extensive and fully developed than those of the last guy, but he sticks to them with the same tenacity.
A press conference, however, should be the occasion for reporters to probe beneath the placid surface of a president’s regular pitch in search of a clearer view into his thought processes.
Most significantly, it seems to me, Obama really owes the American public an explanation of how he arrived at his financial rescue plan. We need to hear not just that he has confidence in his economic advisers, but why. In particular, he needs to explain why we shouldn’t think that he’s been coopted by Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner into going soft on Wall Street.
But the White House press corps just isn’t up to it. Ana Marie Cox wrote earlier this month in The Washington Post’s Outlook section that the modern White House correspondent’s job is, well, a joke: “Here are some stories that reporters working the White House beat have produced in the past few months: Pocket squares are back! The president is popular in Europe. Vegetable garden! Joe Biden occasionally says things he probably regrets. Puppy!”
She explained: “It’s not that the reporters covering the president are bad at their jobs. Most are experienced journalists at the top of their game — and they’re wasted at the White House, where scoops are doled out, not uncovered. The day of a typical White House correspondent consists, literally, of waiting to be told things. Legitimate security concerns and a tightly scripted political world keep the presidential press corps physically corralled and informationally hostage.”
And that’s the generous view. Los Angeles Times media columnist James Rainey wrote after the last prime-time press conference that the online-fueled narcissism of the White House press corps is responsible for the continued dumbing down White House coverage.
Rainey particularly mocked CNN correspondent Ed Henry‘s public mulling of his pre-game strategy. “He wrote that when ‘the pressure was on,’ he decided to gamble and call an audible ‘like any good quarterback.’ Later he would recount how he rose to the occasion in a ‘pressure-packed environment,’” Rainey wrote.
“Henry had asked a relatively mundane question at a presidential news conference. But, for all his preening and prattling, you might have thought he’d won the Super Bowl or landed the space shuttle. With one wing on fire.
“Henry’s news conference run-in with President Obama last week over AIG bonuses proved a win-win. (Or maybe a spin-win.) CNN’s ‘senior’ White House correspondent got to show he could play the tough guy, by asking why it took the president days to express outrage over the exorbitant payouts. Obama got to play the thoughtful leader, avoiding a direct answer while snapping at Henry that, ‘I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.’
“The only potential losers were the rest of us, numbed by years of these over-hyped White House sideshows, full of sound and fury and signifying . . . a lot less than they might.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week, said he would give the White House press corps a “strong A” for its work in the first 100 days.
As Howard Kurtz blogged for The Washington Post, that raised several distinct possibilities:
“a) Gibbs genuinely believes that journalists are doing a superlative job and sees the daily grilling he gets as democracy in action;
“b) Gibbs thinks the press is doing a lousy job but sees no percentage in picking a fight right now; or
“c) Gibbs hopes to spur a little grade inflation in which those he is praising are in turn inclined to give Obama top marks.”
I would add d) Gibbs is delighted that the press corps, thanks its lack of tenacity and its propensity to get distracted by shiny objects, has failed to knock Obama out of his comfort zone.