If you are really interested in debates over out-year budget deficits, last night’s presidential press conference was a gas from beginning to end, with reporters putting on their green eyeshades and clucking over ten-year debt and deficit forecasts, and Obama answering with polite variations on the theme: “You don’t get it.”
But in the eyes of the news media itself, the big news probably wasn’t how the president answered questions, but who got to ask them. Here’s how Michael Calderone of Politico summed it up:
[I]n quite a departure from the first presser — and White House protocol — Obama skipped over the nation’s top newspapers. Indeed, there were no questions from the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or USA Today. That might not sit well with the already insecure newspaper industry.
In exchange, Obama opened things up to a wider variety of outlets, including Spanish-language television, a military news outlet, and black-oriented media. It’s another example of the White House going over the typical Washington press corps “filter.”
Calderone didn’t specifically mention the joy that probably broke out at Politico itself when its own reporter, Mike Allen, was called on by the president, while the Washington Post, where many Politico staffers used to work, didn’t get the Big Nod for prime-time TV exposure.
That makes two-for-two for defiance of ancient press protocol canons in Obama’s prime-time presidential press conferences. In the first one last month, the president created a buzz by calling on Sam Stein of Huffington Post. Oh my God, you could almost hear reporters think, calling on a blogger at a presidential press conference!
In taking this approach, it’s not as though Obama is trying to dodge tough questions or hostile reporters. Fox and the Washington Times were among the organizations whose reporters were selected for a question last night. Moreoever, the president routinely allowed follow-up questions, which most politicians just as routinely refuse to do, since they (a) reduce the amount of time available to spread the press-love around, and (b) are generally designed to expose evasions of initial questions.
I really don’t think there’s any overt strategy of exclusion or inclusion going on in Obama’s press conferences, to this point. But it is clear he and his staff aren’t particularly interested in observing traditions of press entitlement that lost whatever rationale they ever had many years ago. I’m sure some Washington observers were annoyed that time was “wasted” in questions from “ethnic media” like Univision and Ebony. But the questions–about the Mexican “border war” and about homelessness–were actually a refreshing break from the relentless effort to provoke a presidential gaffe on the budget or AIG.
In general, Team Obama’s approach to media relations is more a reflection than a cause of social, technological and economic changes in media usage and the consequent reportorial pecking order. But it’s interesting to see these changes play out in one of the hoariest, most tradition-laden venues this side of the British House of Lords, the presidential press conference.