Press draws first blood on their turf

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jun 28, 2009 12:00 AM

President Barack Obama made news at a press conference last week – by planting a question with a blogger, not by offering anything new in spite of taking his sharpest questions to date.

The sharper edge of reporters’ questions had much to do with the setting, one White House press corps member said afterward: “It was our turf, in our seats … no formality of the East Room or even (the) Rose Garden. So I think when we're comfortable, we're more likely to fire back at him for follow-ups.”

Obama coming unarmed with news led to more probing, analytical-style questions which can always tie up presidents.

The planted query (the White House denies it being planted) came from Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney; an administration official phoned him ahead of time to suggest that Obama would take a particular question from him.

“Planted questions undermine the integrity of the process,” says Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

If the president wanted to offer a response to a communication from an Iranian citizen, Rozell explains, that would have been fine. “But citizens are led to believe that the questions in the press conferences are not known in advance by the president and his staff and that the process has some degree of spontaneity.”

To be sure, presidents and their staffs spend serious time anticipating likely questions and preparing answers. They have a really good record of being able to anticipate most of what a president is asked by reporters; not a lot of surprises occur.

Every so often, in response to an unanticipated question, a president will give a candid answer – and then the press conference becomes especially newsworthy.

But if “the questions are planted, then what is the point, really?” Rozell asks.

Presidential historian Joel Goldstein says the press should play an independent role and its independence is compromised if reporters simply serve up questions provided to them.

“I think there are real concerns regarding the future of the media,” he says. “Bloggers provide access to many (readers), yet much of what then passes for journalism lacks the professionalism of the good political reporters and columnists, whose experience provides a context in which to present current events.”

Part of the problem, though, is with Americans. Just look at our obsession this news cycle regarding the Gov. Mark Sanford story.

“Surely the Sanford story has many tragic dimensions, but was it really the most important story last week to justify the sort of coverage it got on CNN and MSNBC?” Goldstein wonders.

“For my money, the Senate's cloture vote on Harold Koh's nomination, Iran, health care, Korean threats, etc., will have more impact on our lives than the fact that yet another ‘family values’ politician has acted in a manner which is inconsistent with what he preaches.”

Villanova University’s Lara Brown offers two reasons why this particular press conference is just the beginning of what we can expect between the press and the president: Obama’s slipping popularity numbers, and the roughing-up of his policies on Capitol Hill.

Obama and his staff, she says, may be increasingly concerned about too many substantive questions from reporters who may smell blood.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that Team Obama might create a diversion at a press conference, to get everyone talking about the diversion instead of reporting on substantive issues – health care, energy, the economy, the budget deficit, Iran, the president's lack of engagement on many of these issues – that do not reflect well on Obama.

It’s a political strategy that can be summed up as “Look at my right hand, so you don't watch what my left one is doing.”

Remember that old song, “Smooth Operator?” Obama is just that – the smoothest operator that Purdue’s Rockman says he has ever seen.

While such tricks may not jeopardize a free press, Rockman is “worried about the decline of traditional media and reporters without axes to bear.

“There is no doubt that the ‘new media’ is actually leading us back to a 19th-century party-press, where we read only what we agree with,” he says. And that “is a genuine concern.”

Since last week’s press conference, three things have emerged that will probably change how Obama approaches a microphone.

First, there definitely will be more scrutiny of blogger questions from Obama-friendly websites. Second, since first-blood has been drawn, the press will engage in a frenzied feeding.

And third, that probably was the last time Obama will step to the podium without real news to take queries about.