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The flack pack: how press conferences turn serious journalists into shills.

It's 4:30 in the afternoon on the windswept lawns of the president's estate at Kennebunkport, and dozens of journalists are getting tired of watching the dog romp. At last, the president's men take their positions near the two vacant lecterns, the screen door swings open, and, as the reporters raise their notebooks, or steady their cameras, or crouch to extend their ungainly microphones, the president of the United States and the prime minister of Japan step into the sunshine. After the two men exchange some prepared pleasantries, George Bush looks out at the broad semicircle of expectant journalists and spreads his hands. The president's press conference of July 11, 1991-the 90th in a remarkable string of almost weekly duels with the White House press corps-begins: ME President, " asks Helen Thomas of UPI, "did the prime minister bring a check along? And have you solved the rice problem? And do you think that there's a growing anti-Japanese sentiment in this country?" Ah, democracy. Where else in the world would a mere journalist feel free to address the maximum leader, in the presence of a foreign dignitary, in such insistent tones? Where else would you find such pointed, immediate requests for information about the daily workings of government?

And why, given all that, does George Bush look so smug? "I can handle this one, " he says, beginning to grin. "Before I answer the question may I say that I predicted with 100percent accuracy who would ask the first question and what it would be. "

If you're a public official and you have something to hide-corruption or dissent in the ranks, the dismal performance of your most touted initiative, or simply your slippery grip on current affairs-one of the best ways to do so is to call a press conference. A press conference will accomplish at least three things for you: It will prove you're not afraid of whatever it is you're afraid of, it will impart to your carefully prepared, artful answers the appearance of spontaneity and hence the warm glow of sincerity, and it will help keep that roomful of journalists, seemingly so intent on poking into your business, out of it.

The key to this guaranteed success lies in your ability to control the content of what looks like a completely unpredictable forum. Even the most seemingly contentious press conference is fundamentally a scripted event, with the roles to be played and the topics to be discussed clearly defined. Much to your advantage, the press is cast dramatically in the role of adversary, an appearance magnified by what John Quincy Adams once testily called journalists' "affectation of showing their independence." Who knows when those reporters might choose to leap for your jugular? Who knows what bones they might drag from your closet to lay at your feet?

Well, you do. While Ronald Reagan was president, much was made of his handlers' elaborate efforts to prepare for press conferences, from grilling their man ahead of time to carefully pointing out on a television monitor the journalists he should avoid calling on. That preparation paid off. "In press conferences, out of 30 questions and follow-ups the press would ask, we might fail to anticipate one," wrote the president's press secretary, Larry Speakes, in his book Speaking Out. "And often we could even predict which reporters were going to ask which questions."

Yet, despite all the frustration with the Reagan administration's success at "managing the news," there's nothing astonishing about that tally. "Everyone agrees that you can anticipate the questions," says one of George Bush's spokes people. Jimmy Carter, who weathered his share of rocky press conferences, once remarked that "you can anticipate about 80 to 90 percent of the questions ahead of time." Jerry terrorist, who served as Gerald Ford's first press secretary, says his people did even better than that. "We scored 98, 99 percent of the time anticipating what was coming down the track by way of questions, and the one or two questions that surprised us tended to deal with easy personal things like Do you enjoy Camp David as much as President Nixon did?' or 'Do you use the bowling alley?' "

Such prescience is not confined to presidents and their flacks. After the Gulf war, one of the Pentagon's briefers, Lt. General Thomas Kelly, told The New York Times that one press conference ran so close to his rehearsal that he jokingly asked an aide if he'd slipped the practice questions to the journalists. "What was stunning was not what tripped me up, but how overprepared I was for the usual range of questions," says Hodding Carter, who served in what looked at the time like the hot seat, as Jimmy Carter's State Department spokesman. "I was always shocked by how essentially repetitious and narrow the questions were. . . . I cannot recall in three and a half years two dozen times that I was shaken-two dozen is too many. I can't recall a dozen times that I was shaken by an approach, in a sense caught unprepared, from a serious journalistic source."

Of course, the batter who knows when to expect the high fastball is going to have a mighty impressive slugging percentage. Which may be why the Pentagon during the Gulf war seized on press briefings as a key means of molding public opinion. And why Jimmy Carter, after leaving the White House, commented, "The best way a president can get his message through is obviously through the press conference." And why the only regret Michael Deaver, Reagan's deputy chief of staff, voices about Reagan's press conferences is that he didn't hold more of them. Partly because it gives the appearance of being the opposite, the press conference is in fact a powerful example of one of the great threats to independent reporting-slavery to the source. "In Washington, news more often than not is what officialdom says it is, and the press conference just makes that obvious," says Hodding Carter. No one wields the press conference to more deadening effect than presidents in general-and this president in particular. Thanks to the conventions of daily journalism, serving in its role as what Robert Shogan of the Los Angeles Times calls a "Potemkin opposition," a White House press conference is really little more than a session between a flack and a team of editors, honing a press for the public's consumption: All the appearance of presidential accountability, with none of the unpleasantness of actually confronting tough issues like failing banks, wasteful weapons, or broken schools. Tyranny of the status quote

White House correspondents say that their questions are predictable for a very good reason: "If you were covering current events and you had your eye on the ball, wouldn't you come up with the same questions as everyone else?" asks ABC's Sam Donaldson, Reagan's most skillful and persistent interrogator. "It would be surprising if reporters asked strange, off-the-wall questions, interesting as they would be." That sounds sensible enough-until you discover what "off-the-wall" means in the White House briefing room. A close look at the formal presidential press conferences held between the beginning of the Bush administration and the middle of September shows that only a handful of questions weren't yoked to the day's news. Reporters generally played to Bush's strengths, seeking blow-by-blow updates on the administration's (until recently) unchanging policy on Lithuanian independence and leaving almost unexplored vast, festering problems at home. Would it have been that off-the-wall, that far from Americans' immediate concerns, for reporters to have pushed the president on what he planned to do to strengthen the public schools (a grand total of four questions out of 1,865), to cut American dependence on foreign oil (only three questions), to bolster campaign finance laws (two questions), to address the problems of the B-2 bomber (one question) or the misery of homelessness (none)?

Since, as Donaldson suggests, the questions put to the president serve as a gauge for what the hot national stories are, the narrowness of their range is horrifying-even more so when you consider that the people asking them are among the best in the business. The trouble lies with the news organizations' decades-old approach to covering the president, an approach, simultaneously exhaustive and superficial, that has only been exacerbated by the rise of television. "Day after day, week after week, we wrote stories about the president playing golf, signing bills, and reacting," wrote Russell Baker in The Good Times of his stint covering Dwight Eisenhower's vacation for The Baltimore Sun. "The president might not be doing much, but [his press secretary] kept him in the news by having him react to people who were."

Two means suggest themselves for newspapers and networks to escape the White House press conference trap: Have the journalists ask better questions, or stop sending them altogether. Free them from having to respond to the president as he responds to the problems that everybody failed to anticipate, and put them to work trying to head off those deadly chain reactions.

Bush seems to understand this need better than the news organizations do. Queried at a press conference about whether the HUD scandal was encouraged by the Reagan administration's hands-off management style, Bush responded, somewhat helplessly, "Something might be happening in some department today that I know nothing about. We've got an enormous bureaucracy; we've got a tremendous bureaucracy that extends all around the world. And there might well be some corruption out there that's going on that I would be responsible for but that I don't know about." And that he's not likely to learn about, either-at least not from any of the dozens of inquiring minds in the White House briefing room. It doesn't take a great leap of cynicism to suspect that he kind of likes it that way.

Indeed, viewed from afar by an alien political scientist with a yen for conspiracy theories, the U.S. presidency would surely look like a dog-and-pony show-an endless round of fishing and horseshoes and iffy appointees and arms control talks-designed to distract attention not just from the corruption but, more significantly, from the actual performance of the government and of America's permanent governing class, the unelected bureaucrats. That's certainly the president's effect, in any case. There doesn't seem to be another explanation for why such savvy journalists would ask more than 10 times as many questions about the nomination of John Tower as secretary of defense as about specific defense programs, and twice as many questions about the president's health-"Have you been gaining weight up here, sir?"-as about health care or health education for the rest of America (six questions, total).

It's a flack thing

By the middle of September, Bush had held 103 formal press conferences-close to three times more than Reagan held in eight years. According to White House correspondents, one happy result of all this access is that reporters spend less time jockeying to ask a question in hopes that the editors back home or the sweethearts who dumped them in high school will appreciate just how important they are. "You always knew there was a press conference," recalls one Reagan-era flack, "because Helen [Thomas] got her hair done." With so many press conferences, and so few in prime time, the pressure's off.

But ask a White House reporter for an instance of a surprising piece of news that has come out of these press conferences, and you generally get a very long pause-and then an example from those notoriously scripted Reagan prime-time extravaganzas. There was the time Sam Donaldson asked Reagan for his opinion on Soviet intentions (Reagan replied that to achieve world revolution, the Soviets "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat"). And the time Sam Donaldson asked Reagan if he believed Martin Luther King was a communist sympathizer ("We'll know about it in 35 years, won't we?"-a reference to when the relevant government files would be unsealed; according to Donaldson, the president's briefers had in fact anticipated the question, but no one believed Reagan actually planned to give the same answer on live television they had all giggled over in the White House family theater). The first of these questions came at Reagan's first press conference as president, the second in 1983. "You can almost make a case that you often get less information from Bush, because he's a master of appearing forthcoming without really telling you anything, so there's an appearance of accessibility, without the reality," says Michael Shanahan, who covers the White House for the Newhouse papers. Yet we still rely on the number of press conferences a president holds as an index of the openness of his administration.

While there was always the possibility that Reagan might wander out of the orbit of his handlers and say something surprising, Bush himself is his administration's center of gravity, very much in control. Indeed, when news has escaped a Bush press conference, the journalists present sometimes haven't noticed it whiz past. Bush held a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in Palm Springs in 1989. "There were so many questions on Japan that you knew you weren't going to get one of those," recalls Timothy McNuity of the Chicago Tribune. "So I tried to think of something else. So I asked about settlements, which are in the news now. In my question, I asked about the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And in his reply, Bush talked about the West Bank and East Jerusalem." McNulty believes the substitution was deliberate: "It's a hard linguistic slip to go from Gaza Strip' to 'East Jerusalem."' No one picked up on the comment-except in Israel, where it precipitated a crisis that led to the collapse of the coalition government.

Leave it to Deaver

"We don't find out anything they don't want us to know. In that sense, this White House has been almost leak-free," summarizes Carl Leubsdorf of The Dallas Morning News, who began covering the White House during the Carter administration. "But of course this president's giving us news a lot." Giving us news. Now, it's dangerously easy for a magazine writer to sit back and take potshots at other people's work. But there seems nevertheless to be something extremely troubling about that trade off, institutionalized by the press conference-although we may be learning only what they want to tell us, what they want to tell us makes for satisfactory stories.

Of course, to some extent that relationship is an improvement. Despite the affectation of independence that they have maintained since George Washington took office, newspapers used to depend on presidents for more than information. Some 56 newspapermen (Daniel Webster referred to them as "the typographical corps") were rewarded with administration jobs by Andrew Jackson. But more than jobs or printing contracts, the real form of currency between presidents and the press quickly came to be "news." Today's trouble arose because the application of that concept-"news" -widened greatly over the years. Thomas Jefferson may have fretted that Americans were treating their president like a king, but the first Washington correspondent wasn't even assigned until 1827. One hundred sixty years later, however, even the president's dog's puppies were considered a hot story.

Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, the president's skyrocketing news value greatly increased his power over the press. When Michael Deaver announced early in the Reagan administration that journalists could no longer ask questions at photo opportunities, the networks rebelled: No questions, they said, no cameras. The White House stood firm, NBC immediately caved, and the other networks shortly followed suit. After all, what network could afford to miss a shot of the president chatting with the leader of Sierra Leone? The rule is still in effect, with Bush enforcing it when he feels like it. "The pool of reporters that go into photo ops will as a general rule ask one question to see if the president will answer," says Susan Page of Newsday. If he doesn't, "they will generally back off."

Historically, the more a president chose to "give news," the better the press was likely to treat him. "The president has been more than cordial in his relations with the corps," wrote the Washington correspondent of Editor and Publisher, the leading trade journal, a few years back. "He has done unusual things and all but the few chronic kickers are hailing him. . . . The great majority of the correspondents have laid aside their axes and fine-tooth combs and are ready to do their share toward making permanent the program of mutual helpfulness thus established by [him]." Which president was he referring to? Warren Harding-one who desperately deserved the fine-tooth treatment.

With Reagan came the full flowering of the art of giving news, whether journalists wanted it or not. His press team-including Deaver, James Baker, and others-met weekly for lunch at Blair House to plot coverage of their boss. "I didn't want to be forced into somebody else's agenda," says Deaver. "I wanted to be able to program the communications parts of the White House in a way to tell our story. A lot of people call that manipulation, but my job was not to accommodate the media.... It wasn't hard to figure out that every president who had gotten in trouble in the past 30 years had gotten in trouble because he'd been put on the defensive. He'd lost control of the agenda, and I was determined that wouldn't happen to us."

At those meetings, the group would plan coverage over a six-week period, scheduling events to build on a certain theme over that time, then meeting the next week to fine-tune the unfolding program. "One of the best examples is the whole education reform thing," says Deaver. "We saw in 83 that education was one of the biggest negatives the president had. I think the ABC poll had the president at about 63 percent negative." So they looked for something positive to point to. "We found that we had this task force on excellence in education that had been out there working on this the whole time that nobody knew anything about. And they'd come up with five recommendations, and when we tested them we found that 80 percent of the public agreed with them." So Reagan began touring the country, visiting schools that were already doing the sorts of things the task force called for. "It wasn't a matter of getting them enacted, more going forth and highlighting where those things were already being done." The press dutifully tailed along. Regional news organizations jumped on the story whenever Reagan pulled into town. "We took about six weeks and literally turned the thing around. He was 65 percent positive by the end of it." The policies stayed the same-the president hadn't launched an alternative certification program for teachers, hadn't funded a new lunch program for the children, hadn't suggested a system for involving parents in their kids' education, hadn't created a national, after-school adult literacy campaign. He'd just changed the news. After all, the average correspondent wasn't planning his coverage six weeks ahead; he was reacting, daily, to the president's moves.

Prose and cons

Big news organizations are less likely to fall for Deaveresque tricks today. Recently, when Bush staged a media circus at a D.C. public school, ABC and CBS ignored it, NBC highlighted its cynicism, and The Washington Post gleefully savaged it on the front page: "The White House turned a Northwest Washington junior high classroom into a television studio and its students into props yesterday ...... The story was a delightful piece of writing-you could sense the reporters' relish at finally striking back at the people who'd conned them for so long. Sad thing was, they were still falling for the real con.

The article devoted only one sentence to what Bush said about education-no sir, these reporters won't be suckered into writing the president's press releases anymore. But it devoted not a single word to what his administration was actually doing. Fresh, energetic teachers? Better lunches? Adult literacy? Who knows? Does anybody care? Not the White House correspondents, who could be setting the tone for the rest of their organizations' coverage. Instead, as noted above, in close to three years of press conferences, the self-styled Education President has had to answer only four questions touching on the American education system. And of those, at least two were asked, not by the regular White House press corps, but by regional reporters admitted for special briefings.

It's not as if the White House correspondents wile away the hours with trivial questions. Certainly, some queries seem a tad goofy-"Mr. President, have you lost the broccoli vote?" "How many puppies are you going to have?" "Mr. President, on a quite different topic, the Oscars are this Monday, and I'm wondering . . "-but those sorts of questions can occasionally generate entertaining stories. For the most part the questions are serious, straight-forward-and reactive, as in the exchange at the beginning of this story. "Mr. President, what is your reaction to Mr. Gorbachev's counterproposal for troop cuts in Europe?" "How do you stand this morning about Fast Track? Do you think it's going to pass in both chambers?"

Take another look at those questions. In each case, the information requested is information the administration has a strong interest in getting out to the public. Here, for example, was Bush's answer to the question about whether negotiations on establishing a free-trade agreement with Mexico would receive "Fast Track" authority from Congress, meaning Congress would not tinker with the fine print: "That's a slow ball, and the answer is yes. Okay. Thank you for asking. It's very, very important to us . . . ."

"He uses us, just like every president before used us," says Greg McDonald of The Houston Chronicle. "This is sort of a game you play, we have a job to do, and we get used." It makes perfect sense for the press to serve as a conduit between the president and the people and foreign governments. Much harder to understand, however, is why it takes dozens of high-caliber journalists to gather the information, and why they should fritter away their few chances to question the president in order to do so. Let's say no correspondent had asked the president about Fast Track. Would the public have been denied the chance to learn his current position? Not likely. A briefing or press release would have quickly filled the gap, or, perhaps, at the end of the press conference, a weary president would have said, "Listen, fellahs, something that didn't come up, but that is very, very important to us. . . ."

Most of the questions aren't softballs, but, in searching transcripts of formal Bush press conferences from the beginning of his administration to middle of September, I couldn't find more than a dozen questions not leashed to the week's news. This approach tends to leave out vast areas-needs, like job training, that don't burst into the public consciousness like coups, and disasters that haven't yet jumped to the front pages, like the mysterious failures of savings and loans during the mid-eighties. It's a longstanding habit of the White House press corps, one that contributed to one of the great journalistic sins of omission of all time. In November 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise announced that sources confirmed by the State Department had informed him that two million Jews had been killed in Europe as part of a Nazi "extermination campaign." The news faded instantly away, and it wasn't broached at one of Roosevelt's bi-weekly press conferences for almost a year.

The questions asked by the White House press corps reflect little sense of history, even of the Bush administration itself, which allows the president to get away with a lot of cheap political tricks. Old themes, pushed by Bush at various points but then dropped, their political utility spent, are never resurrected by the journalists-even though all it would take is a "Whatever happened to ... ?" At his first press conference as president, for example, Bush proudly declared, "I've been talking this week about ethics, and the emphasis is not, believe me, a fad or some passing fancy." Remember those days? At the same meeting, he declared, hilariously in retrospect, "I really am serious about this trying to get more of a bipartisan foreign policy." And then there's the flag issue, which consumed a couple of press conferences in the summer of 1989: "Burning the flag goes too far, and I want to see that matter remedied," Bush announced on June 27. Nothing less than a constitutional amendment, he averred, would do the trick. And then the issue vanished. Well, Mr. President, if the issue was of such momentous concern, why, more than two years later, have you done nothing about it?

The nonanswer man

Just because the questions spin off the day's events doesn't mean they can't be hard to handle. But, fortunately for the chief executive, he can simply choose not to answer them. During Operation Desert Shield, a journalist referred to a Time magazine article asserting that no cabinet official had a child serving in Saudi Arabia and that a disproportionate number of poor and minority soldiers were on the front lines: "Is this accurate? And if it is, why does this condition exist?" Bush gave a lengthy, passionate response. But the question Bush wound up actually answering went something like: "Mr. President, isn't it true that the Army discriminates and that we have the most unpatriotic, boneheaded soldiers in the world?" It's a bit more manageable. Bush started slow, but as he reshaped the question he gathered steam:

I don't know about the proliferation of my

cabinet and where their children are, but I don't

have any service-aged kids myself But I don't

think this concept that this is a discriminatory

army, or an army that is discriminating and thus

sending more blacks to their fate-or minorities,

Hispanics or something-is proper. I've heard

it, and I reject it.... And if you don't believe

me, believe Colin Powell.... This is an all-volunteer

army; they're not draft-dodging. Remember

Vietnam and the allegation, which I think

had a lot of truth to it. But the kid that

got disproportionately there was the guy that couldn't

get the exemption and came out of kind of the

lower rungs of society. This is different, totally


And we ought to get you figures on this, because

it is very, very important as to how high

of quality this army is. And you'll read about

one or two that say, "Well, I didn't sign up to do

this; I signed up because I thought I could get a

free education." He gets on the Phil Donahue

show [laughter]-a big hero. But that's the tiny

fraction of these kids that are over there. The

morale is good, and they're motivated, and

they're well-educated, and they're dedicated, and

-if you'll excuse an old-fashioned reference-they're

patriotic. And so, it isn't some cop-out

armed services that they're now getting caught

up in something that they were unaware of.

I'm glad we got that one because I really feel

strongly on that question.

Possible follow-ups: "OK, Mr. President, but to get back to the original question, isn't it true that there are disproportionately few children of wealthy Americans risking their lives in the Gulf?" Or "OK, Mr. President, but why does the fact that some wealthy Americans evaded the draft during the Vietnam War mean we should excuse all of them from serving now?" Actual follow-up: There wasn't one.

Even when a reporter does ask a tough question and doggedly pursues it with the one follow-up he is permitted by press-conference conventions, he will most often simply run smack into a flat statement of the president's preferred reality, at which point his peers will desert him. Consider this exchange between Bush and Owen Ullmann, of Knight-Ridder:

Q: Can you explain why you believe it's all

right for women who can afford an abortion on

their own, that in cases where they are raped or

in cases of incest, that it's permissible; but that

for poor women who cannot afford abortions, it

is not permissible to help them get abortions in

cases of rape and incest?

A: Owen, the only answer I can give you on that

is to go back to the original Hyde amendment

and to the position that I took and will stay with.

And to some there might be a contradiction

there. To me there is none.

Q: Just to follow, sir: I mean, it's not a question

of contradiction. It seems that if you can pay it

yourself it's okay under those circumstances.

But the message, it seems, is that if you can't afford

it yourself-tough luck! And isn't that a

moral conflict in your own position?

A: No, I don't think it's a moral conflict in my

own position.

Q: Mr. President, could I return to Panama for

an instant? ...

Bush is also very good at using humor to deflect questions; it's a weapon he uses frequently, for example, against Sarah McClendon. McClendon writes for her own wire, McClendon News Service, and she has covered every president since Franklin Roosevelt; she is regarded by press officers as a bit of a crank. She makes a great deal of noise in the back of the room trying to attract the president's attention, and she tends to ask lengthy questions about domestic matters, sometimes a bit off the day's news. "Sarah McClendon is a classic, but kind of kooky," is the way one former White House flack puts it, changing his voice to a whine: "What are you going to do about the oyster problem in Louisiana?" Veteran press corps members also tend to dismiss her as a pest, and as a result overlook the fact that, mixed in with her speechifying, she often asks damn good questions-whether the president would comply with Rep. Claude Pepper's dying request that he provide home health care for incapacitated Americans, for example, or whether, in the aftermath of the Gulf war, he would "see that the United States and others quit selling arms." "I don't give a damn whether Brit Hume likes me or not-he's said some nasty things about me, that I'm an old fool," says McClendon. "But I'm going to keep asking my questions." She may be on to something with those questions, but it's unlikely anyone will ever follow her up. Here's how Bush and her peers have treated her on a couple of occasions:

A: Who is that voice I hear in the back? [Laughter.]

Could it be Sarah McClendon? [Laughter.]

Sorry, it's a democracy.

Q: Mr. President, I want to ask you about gun

control. All over the country - A: Oh. [Laughter.]

Q: -the parents and the people-now don't

leave me, don't leave me. [Laughter.]

A: Sarah.

Q: All over the country, the people now are going

to city hall about this ....

Bush's response was that he'd "like to do something about these automated weapons.... but I also want to be the president that protects the rights of people to have arms." He cut off her follow-up ("Sir, that's what we said last year, but now-") to add: "But Sarah, look at the laws on gun control and you'll find where some of the most stringent gun control laws exist, that weapons are procured there and weapons are used there. So you're not going to get me to do anything other than to say, Look, I'm very concerned about this . . ." The next question was about Salman Rushdie.

Another time, McClendon made the mistake of challenging Bush on his assertion that he was conducting his Gulf buildup policy in the open. Rather than refer to the complaints of "congressional critics," she took him on directly: "You and Jim Baker give the other countries a chance to talk and you give the United Nations a chance to talk but you won't give the United States people a chance to debate with you." Bush responded, "Well, now, that's an absurd comment, Sarah, from a bright person like you. . . ." Hard to imagine Bush getting away with patronizing Brit Hume that way.

Domestic whine

One of the mistakes McClendon makes is to ask about domestic policy. These days, it's done practically not at all. "To some extent, journalists, like Bush, think dabbling in foreign affairs makes them more important," says Robert Shogan. "And it's easier, because you can just make sweeping generalizations." It's hard to go after Bush on a specific domestic concern: "You have to force the issue and you have to make him look awkward. Very difficult to do, unless other people are going to back you up. But they're all waiting to ask about Iraq or some damn thing. Without that [backup], you look like a nut -you look like Sarah McClendon." (Surprisingly, reporters played to Bush's strength even during the campaign. "The amazing thing-during the 1988 presidential campaign, very few domestic issues ... came up," says Sheila Tate, who served as Bush's press secretary. "It was interesting. When he went and gave an education speech at the press club, we got some good coverage-but I don't think we got a question on education again.")

Bush subtly stacks the deck to favor foreign policy questions. Of the 103 news conferences he'd held by mid-September, he staged 29 abroad or in the company of foreign leaders. In addition, journalists react to Bush's policy pronouncements, and Bush has chosen to emphasize foreign affairs. Yes, the developments abroad during his administration have deserved a great deal of presidential attention-but in most cases, they are the matters Bush has the greatest interest in speaking about, in order to inform the world of American desires and intentions. He'd find a way to get the word out.

Bush is understandably much less interested in wrestling with domestic details, like how he's going to address the scourge of AIDS (4 questions out of 1,865) or deal with what looks to be the next S&L crisis, the collapse of the commercial banks (2 questions). Out of all the questions between the beginning of his administration and mid-September, a full 1,225 were on foreign policy matters; only 637 were on domestic concerns. And that tally excludes press conferences devoted to the Gulf war.

When the press does apologetically turn its attention to the United States ("I just wanted to get one domestic policy question in here," was how one journalist tentatively brought the discussion home), the queries tend to be about personalities rather than programs and policies. In the past few months, for example, White House journalists asked four times as many questions about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as they asked in three years about affirmative action or civil rights. And can you guess what domestic policy category ran second in popularity to the status of the annual budget negotiations? No, not the S&Ls (22 questions-five of which were on whether Bush would hold onto William Siedman as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). Not the state of the economy or what Bush planned to do about it (24). Not abortion (28). And not even the much-ballyhooed war on drugs (good guess though; it scored a 32). It was the nomination of John Tower, a subject on which reporters, displaying stamina they usually reserve for secessionist Soviet republics, racked up a whopping 41. As Woodrow Wilson once said of the correspondents at the White House, "Some men of brilliant ability were in the group, but I soon discovered that the interest of the majority was in the personal and the trivial rather than in principles and policies."

Besides hotly contested appointees, another favorite category of domestic policy question is exactly that-the domestic policy question: "Mr. President," asked a journalist during a press conference in Athens, "Cyprus is just the latest of a long list of complex, long-lived international problems that you've shown a personal interest in. There's a perception, fair or unfair, that you are not as engaged as you should be in some of the domestic problems that the United States faces. How do you account for that? And with an election coming up next year, what do you intend to do about that?" Instead of asking a pointed question about a specific program, perhaps a question informed by a little reporting, the journalist simply inquires vaguely about the domestic agenda, thereby throwing open the window to an amorphous, buzzing swarm of fly-by-night Bush proposals for the homefront: "I want, as you know, a crime bill. I want a civil rights bill." Etc. The next question, by the way: "Mr. President, going back to the region: Would you suggest a step-by-step procedure in order to solve the Cyprus problem?"

Beyond broccoli

The trick to profiting from a press conference is to go in knowing something, rather than trying to learn something. Hodding Carter describes the journalists he most admired at the State Department this way: "There were some guys that were asking me a question that I could not understand why they were asking, but I knew I was going to feel it up my behind. You know, he'd innocently be looking up at the ceiling and saying, Hodding, whatever happened to, you know, that position paper on the F-16?' And I would know that somewhere in the bowels of some agency we'd screwed up-and I wished to God that this guy hadn't found out about it."

Sam Donaldson argues, however, that that's not a White House correspondent's role-that the work of a House correspondent should be reactive, even shallow. "I'm talking about very simple, often superficial information, when it comes to the long march of history. Boy, if people can remember two questions I asked over the course of my covering the White House, I'm ahead of the game. I don't think it's the job of the reporter to go to a press conference saying, 'I'm going to show how smart I am,' " he says. "It's our j ob to find out what the president's reaction to the day's news is.... We're not going to care what Bush has to say [today] five years from now, but it's the story today. And tomorrow my job would be a different story."

Someone has to play that role. But it doesn't seem that readers, viewers, or-if you'll excuse, as George Bush would say, an old-fashioned reference-the country is well served by having the Sam Donaldsons do it: people who have demonstrated, as Donaldson has at "PrimeTime Live" and as his replacement, Brit Hume, did when he worked for columnist Jack Anderson, that they are capable of far more than skipping along the surface of the day's news, keeping the republic informed that PRESIDENT SPEAKS, PRESIDENT REACTS, or PRESIDENT DISSES BROCCOLI. As Donaldson himself once wrote, "After a while you catch on to the fact that the most insular, sterile place for a television reporter to be in Washington is in the White House press room." Many of the restrictions on coverage that the networks, newspapers, and newsmagazines found so odious during the Gulf war constantly constrain the journalists who work the White House plantation. The difference is that, in the case of the White House, the networks, newspapers, and newsmagazines are the ones who ultimately impose them. Consider again Russell Baker's experience covering Eisenhower. Although he dutifully filed his rote stories to keep his editors happy-"it seemed sensible for a new man on the beat to do as the old-timers did"-Baker's "first instinct was not to bother with it, figuring Baltimore could use the AP story if any of it seemed worth printing."

Today, an ambitious newspaper or network could take hold of Baker's notion-turning the play-by-play over to the wire services and CNN-and let the top-notch White House reporters spend some time digging around to figure out what the significant stories are. Before they trundled off to another of the president's foreign affairs seminars, those White House correspondents could put their reporting skills to work interviewing their peers-the Pentagon correspondent, the economics correspondent, the health reporter-to get a sense for what's brewing past the jump, for the simmering scandals or regulatory failures that haven't boiled over onto the front page yet. Not only would this strategy pump up the questioning of the president, it would help editors and producers spot the holes in their own coverage. Imagine if this conversation had taken place in the newsroom of The Washington Post, circa March 1986:


George gave me some good stuff on the defense

budget, and Michael had some suggestions on

EPA. Am I missing anything? How about housing-anything

going on at HUD?

MANAGING EDITOR: Uh, well, we actually

haven't had anyone over there since Howie went

to New York last year. You might give him a

call ... and now that you mention it, maybe I

should have someone swing by to just, you

know, check out the last couple IG reports.

The rest would have been history. No such luck. As Howard Kurtz wrote three years later, after the scandals at the Department of Housing and Urban Development had finally caught his paper's attention,

"[F]rom 1982 to 1984, I spent much time churning out stories of chicanery that in many ways foreshadowed the avalanche of sleaze to come. But most of these pieces were met with a collective yawn by the political and journalistic establishment.... In a city where the White House, Congress, and the State Department produce most of the banner headlines, HUD and similar agencies are viewed as journalistic backwaters."

Full court press

An even bolder plan of escape would be to leave behind just a few reporters to handle all the White House coverage. Forget the incremental solution of asking tougher questions, have the big shots turn in their White House passes, and dispatch them to fish the "backwaters" instead: Put today's Russell Bakers to work telling those tired stories-like the decay of the schools or the collapse of our health care system -in such a way that they mean something, so that not just the president, but all of us, have to sit up and take action.

And put the diggers to work anticipating the next domestic disaster. Take, once again, the example of the S&Ls. By the mid-eighties, evidence of the impending disaster was accumulating, most of it in stories of thrift failures confined to the business pages of newspapers around the country. And some people in Washington had realized that the central system would not hold. What was missing was the journalist who could put the two together. Getting a story like that means breaking away from sexy sources like the president and the secretary of the treasury, who have no desire to let the news out, and talking instead to the bureaucrats who inhabit Washington's windowless cubicles, people who generally have less loyalty to the administration than concern for the integrity of their agency-in addition to having a better idea of what the hell's going on. A low-level OMB analyst who oversaw the S&L's insurance fund once described to me what he discovered when he examined the numbers back in 1984: "It doesn't take a genius when these guys are taking billion-dollar hits and they have a six-billion dollar fund.... At the time we found out it was a $ 1 0 to $15 billion problem, and we thought, My God, this is a budget buster."' Problem was, like a typical magazine writer, I found this guy five years too late. But, amazingly, no other reporter had ever talked to him. Maybe a roving White House correspondent, sprung from the plantation and scavenging for news, would have.

The most dangerous effect of all these correspondents' sitting around hoping to be granted news is that press conferences provide the illusion of accountability, thanks to the phony drama reporters have injected into them ever since Dan Rather got famous for leaping down Richard Nixon's throat. In Canada, the prime minister and his government must face parliament to answer questions every day. ("It's the only time our version of C-Span has any ratings at all," says Colin MacKenzie of The Globe and Mail.) In England Question Time" comes twice each week. In those two cases, the questioners have both the information and the mandate to grill the prime ministers and their cabinet ministers relentlessly. They aren't members of a Potemkin opposition they're the real thing. And they aren't sitting on the edges of their seats, praying to be given news for the sake of a 15-inch story; they're trying to find out whether the government is working.

The American system offers nothing that compares to that. Journalists can provide a critical counterweight to scheming National Security staffs or runaway federal loan programs, but not by shouting questions at press conferences. The only way they can determine if the government is working properly is to hang out with the Howie Kurtzes or, better yet, to roam through the bureaucracy themselves. Either approach is certainly worth a shot, since the White House press corps has nothing to lose but its chains. All it will take is the courage to break free of the cycle of dependency-to stop waiting to be given the news, and to start taking it.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on foreign correspondents
Author:Bennet, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Why American roads all go to pot.
Next Article:How the geezers cashed in on the Gulf War; and why you'll pay for it.

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