Friday, March 9, 2012

White House Press Conferences

This past Tuesday, President Obama held a formal news conference at the White House, his first formal, solo news conference since October 6th, “although he has since then held seven abbreviated “press availabilities.” It was thus his first press conference of the year, and the first one in 5 months. Many have criticized Mr. Obama for his lack of formal press conferences despite pledging to run the most open, transparent White House in history. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, held the same amount of press conferences as Mr. Obama by this time (67), both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush had held approximately 70% more press conferences at the same point in their first terms.
But does this really mean that Mr. Obama has failed on his promise or that he is actually less transparent than his predecessor? I would caution against such an assumption. After watching Tuesday’s press conference it seems like the White House press conferences are symptomatic of the larger trend in the modern media: sensationalized, overly-dramatized news where every story is framed like a conflict or boxing match and microphones are increasingly given to the loudest, most extreme speakers. A few nights ago, Jon Stewart mocked the White House Press corps for engaging in “instigative journalism” rather than “investigative journalism”: According to Stewart, "they prod the person at the podium with someone else's trash talk to see if they can gin up a fight.” He also added that the reporters’ questions were similar to the ‘fortune cookie game,’ where “people attach the phrase 'in bed’ to fortunes. He proceeded to play his own version of the game, adding ‘You gonna take that sh-t?’ to the end of each reporter's question.”

Part of the fault should be placed on Mr. Obama: if he didn’t want politics to dominate the conversation he shouldn’t have scheduled his first press conference in 5 months on Super Tuesday. But many, if not most, of the questions were solely aimed at pointing out criticism of Mr. Obama by the Republican Presidential candidates and then trying to provoke a response. Laughingly enough, one of the reporters asked Mr. Obama to respond to critics' allegations that the President wanted gas prices to increase. Understandably, Mr. Obama asked, with annoyance, whether that made any sense for a president going into re-election.

The truth of the matter is, while Mr. Obama does not give many formal press conferences, he gives far more interviews. In fact, he has given a total of 408 interviews during his presidency, far more than his predecessor at this point (136) or even Bill Clinton (166). Considering the nature of White House press conferences these days, this might actually be a more effective way of achieving transparency in the White House. 

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