August 16 2013
A question has been haunting me since President Obama’s August 9, pre-Vineyard press conference: How does the press corps come up with all those stupid questions? I mean, you'd think somebody would screw up once in a while and ask a real question. But you would be wrong.
President Obama, whose polling numbers are in the tank outside the White House press corps, strode confidently to the lectern. There are, after all, worse things in life than being pelted by softball questions from a sycophantic press.
Right off the bat, AP’s hard-hitting Julie Pace demanded to know if the U.S.'s recent discord with Russia is Vladimir Putin’s fault. People are reading too much into Putin’s body language, the president said. But the Russian Olympic teams will suffer from not having gay and transgender athletes, he added. I’m glad we got to the bottom of that one. Note (the press didn’t) that throughout the press briefing, the president calls Putin “Putin” and the traitor Edward Snowden “Mr. Snowden.”
CBS’s Major Garrett followed Pace with another toughie. Does the president think his forthcoming appointment of a new Fed Chairman is important? “[D]o do you believe this will be one of the most important, if not the most important, economic decisions you will make in the remainder of your presidency?”
Glad you asked, Major. Yes, my decision regarding the new Federal Reserve Chairman, like all my decisions, will be very important. The Fed Chairman will be there after I’m no longer president. You can look it up.
Ideally, a White House press briefing by the president affords the press—and, by extension, the public—a golden opportunity to obtain information by direct questioning of the chief executive. But this rarely happens today.
The White House press briefing, whether by the president or spokesman Jay Carney, has become so pointless that a former Obama press aide, Reid Cherlin, writing in the liberal New Republic, called for this “unholy charade,” as he dubs the briefings, to be abolished. Oddly enough, Cherlin’s reason for calling off the briefings is that the press has fallen out of love with the president and that therefore there is too much “skirmishing” in the briefings.
“The daily briefing has become a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff, and a source of added friction between the two camps. It’s time to do the humane, obvious thing and get rid of it altogether,” writes Cherlin. Oh, no, we can’t have friction in the briefing room! That adversary-thing should happen only when an evil Republican occupies the White House.
Of course, a better option would be that the press briefing be restored to its rightful function: a chance to get information and thereby inform the public. The president knows all sorts of things that we don’t know, but which we deserve to know. For example, the president knows what he was doing on the night the Benghazi attack unfolded. "What were you doing that night?” is a question that has never been asked in a press op. Such a question would be designed to elicit information—and, if the president refused to answer or obfuscated, well, that in itself would be a kind of information. But this question will never be asked. Any reporter who asked it would be ostracized.
So averse to asking possibly embarrassing questions has the elite press corps come that when the Daily Caller sent a 16-year-old intern to one of Jay Carney’s briefings and the kid asked a real question, the press corps was outraged. Gabe Finger asked if, in light of all his support given to Trayvon Martin’s family, the president was offering protection to the now genuinely endangered Zimmerman family. Rather than appreciating a budding reporter’s audacity and ability to speak up at a press conference, Politico’s Glenn Thrush tweeted that it was “an adolescent question.”
Press briefings have become so meaningless that National Journal’s Ron Fournier, has advocated a weeklong boycott. “If WH journos boycotted briefings for week,” Fournier tweeted, “would 1) readers / viewers miss news? 2) the WH get the message?”
The best that can be said about presidential briefings is that, though reporters don’t seek information and the president certainly doesn’t give them anything, we do get to see the president’s quirks in a setting where he doesn’t quite control everything—almost everything, but not quite. We saw in the pre-Vineyard briefing, for example, one of the president’s least endearing personality traits.
Whether it is the Republicans or Vladimir Putin, nobody, in the president’s mind, ever has an honest disagreement with him over policy. It is always a character flaw or shortcoming of the other fellow. The Republicans want to deprive people of health care and Putin is like a grouchy kid who has bad posture.
Obama was also quoted in the Washington Post saying that Putin can “slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.” So really, Putin is just Obama’s latest bitter clinger. I wonder if the intrepid Julie Pace who asked the blame-Putin question picked up on this. It might have made for a follow-up question, but I suppose that’s expecting too much.
The presidential briefing is obviously a decayed institution for a decayed press corps. Maybe Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, will shake things up. Bezos likely shares the politics of Washington’s media elite. But he knows the value of content. Reporters should skip the set piece briefings entirely or do something they haven’t done for nearly five years: ask real questions.