March 29, 2009

Liz Trotta is shocked, shocked we tell you, at how the Obama White House is managing its press conferences:

Trotta: You know, Eric, we're really witnessing something historic going on with the presidential news conference. President Obama has taken control of it like no other president I've ever seen. By eliminating, for example, the top newspapers, he's really -- which by the way, as you know, which are viewed as the intellectual muscle of the media -- he's managed to show something different. That is, he's going to tailor the questions and the answers to the way he wants them.

Now, there are competing agendas here. The press is supposed to be there to represent the people. The president is there to protect his policies and he wants to be re-elected. But here we are in the middle of a social and and economic revolution, probably the biggest we've had in the country's history, and nobody seems to be able to get a straight answer.

Instead, what we're presented with is preselected questions in a tightly controlled news conference where, at the beginning, the president reads a very self-serving statement from a large movie screen, and then he calls on people, for example, from Univision, and from Stars and Stripes, and from Ebony.

Now, this isn't to say that these people have a right to get a slice of the pie, but let's face it -- the tough questions are going to come from the big guys in media, and I'm talking about mainly newspaper people here, because the television networks certainly haven't covered themselves in glory.

Trotta was promptly corrected about claiming that the questions were preselected, and she admitted this, saying the questioners were preselected instead, and "that is brand new in the history of press conferences."


The Wall Street Journal tried trotting out a similar claim this week, and Media Matters promptly destroyed it:

It later stated, "We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors." In fact, Bush also used such a list, as then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in a March 7, 2003, press briefing.

Moreover, as to the notion that this press corps is much more subservient and less likely to ask tough questions, Todd Gitlin observes that rather the opposite is true: Bush's press corps, in his first few years especially, was unusually docile. American Journalism Review observed back in 2003:

If a sure loser emerged from that evening assembly, it was the White House press corps. Scathing commentary followed. New York Press contributing writer Matt Taibbi likened the press conference to "a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function." Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales panned Bush's performance, then said that the "lethargy was contagious; correspondents were almost as logy as Bush was. Nobody even bothered to ask a question about Osama bin Laden."

ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran, who participated in the questioning, told the New York Observer that Bush wasn't "sufficiently challenged" by reporters and that the president's performance left the press corps "looking like zombies." Letters posted on Poynter's Romenesko Weblog branded the news conference a "sorry spectacle"; one observed, "the pack appears to have been totally domesticated."

Bush himself acknowledged the event was "scripted" when he called on CNN's John King from a predetermined list of reporters. Critics argued the press should not have succumbed so meekly to such an indignity, and some even accused the White House press corps of submitting questions for advance approval--an allegation that beat reporters vehemently denied.

Even more risible is Trotta's claim that "the big boys" are more likely to ask the tougher questions. In Obama's first press conference, you had the Washington Post asking him about A-Rod and steroids, while the toughest question came from HuffPo's Sam Stein. Obama is clearly signaling that the traditional Beltway Village is no longer going to be dominating the conversation with its obsession for trivia, and that his press conferences are going to be open to some fresh voices.

Which really makes the Villagers like Trotta -- the former hoity-toities now forced to join the rest of the journalist schlubs -- unhappy.

Besides, if it had been Trotta who was invited to ask one of the questions, you have to wonder if she'd have confused the president with Osama bin Laden and wished for him to get knocked off.

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