News Cycle

A look at the news, politics and journalism in today’s 24-hour media.

Obama Limits Access to Questions at Press Conferences

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Have you noticed how president-elect Barack Obama is conducting his press conferences? After he finishes reading off his statement of the day, he looks down at a notepad and calls out the names of three of four journalists who have been preselected to ask questions. These journalists have been notified in advance that they are the lucky few who have been selected to pose a question. In addition, many are not from the regular White House pres corps. They are usually local journalists who are not so much interested in broad policy issues but instead want to know something about their local person who was just appointed to a post in the administration.

This is not how a press conference is supposed to be conducted. The traditional method is a political makes a statement, then opens the floor to questions. Journalists raise their hands, or in some cases, start shouting out the questions that need to be answered. This has been gnawing at me for weeks. How does he select the reporters who are allowed to ask questions? Why has the media followed this program like sheep?

Carol Marin of the Chicago Sun-Times had the same thoughts today:

The Obama news conferences tell that story, making one yearn for the return of the always-irritating Sam Donaldson to awaken the slumbering press to the notion that decorum isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The press corps, most of us, don’t even bother raising our hands any more to ask questions because Obama always has before him a list of correspondents who’ve been advised they will be called upon that day.

We reporters have earned our own membership in the Bizarro universe.

Who are we, after all? The ones rapid-firing at Rod Blagojevich with tough questions until we drive him from the room? Or the Miss Manners crowd, silent until called upon, quietly accepting that only a handful of questions will be taken at a time?

President Bush took a beating in the main stream media for trying to control the press. But soon-to-be President Obama’s taking it one step further. All of this should not be a surprise. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post saw 12 months ago the aloof nature of the Obama campaign towards the press and its desire to keep the senator isolated from the media. On Jan. 28, 2008, Kurtz wrote:

When reporters filed onto Barack Obama’s press plane after his acrimonious debate with Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, one thing was noticeably missing amid the wine and snacks on the Boeing 737.

There was no high-level campaign spinner to argue that Obama had gotten the better of the exchanges or that the verbal fisticuffs were part of some precisely calculated strategy. On the press bus the next day, mid-level aides dealt with travel logistics but made no attempt to shape the coverage.

In an age of all-out political warfare, the Obama campaign is a bit of an odd duck: It is not obsessed with winning each news cycle. The Illinois senator remains a remote figure to those covering him, and his team, while competent and professional, makes only spotty attempts to drive its preferred story lines in the press.

“There is no charm offensive from the candidate toward the press corps,” says Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe. “The contact is limited. . . . They see the national media more as a logistical problem than a channel for getting stuff out.”

As Obama’s blowout victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary shows, an aloof attitude toward the media may not be a liability for a candidate with his oratorical gifts. Even the pundits’ attempts to minimize his win by focusing on Obama’s capturing a quarter of the white vote — no small achievement in a three-way contest — came after a week in which journalists talked about race far more than he did. But the contrast in his press strategy is striking, not just with Clinton’s campaign — which aggressively lobbies journalists around the clock — but also with the Bush White House and the Clinton White House before that. And that, Obama aides say, is by design.

It will be interesting to see as the new administration takes power if it intends to keep the president on message by limiting the access to the media, especially reporters who are interested in tougher questions. It will also be interesting to see if the media pushes back against a popular president as much as it pushed backed against an unpopular one.

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Written by newscycle

January 13, 2009 at 1:33 pm

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