I’m always interested in what happens at presidential news conferences, frequently using them in my News Writing classes as the most well-known example of the news conference format.
President Barack Obama met the press for the first time last night. Click on the link for a review of his performance in the Washington Post by media critic Howard Kurtz.
I tend to agree with Kurtz, that the media representatives struck a happy medium between the softball question and going for the jugular vein and that the tone was just about right for the first of these public encounters.
Conservatives, as you might expect, are surely going to see it differently. We’ve been hearing for months, going back to the Democratic primary campaign, about the supposed love affair between the news media and the charismatic then-candidate.
Author Bernard Goldberg has chronicled this already in his book entitled — what else? — “A Slobbering Love Affair.” I have mixed feelings about Goldberg, a former CBS News reporter whose investigative sports journalism on the HBO program “Real Sports” is admirable. But his book “Bias,” and this latest effort would appear to be fairly predictable conservative takes on the so-called “mainstream media,” aimed at an audience which wants its own particular biases confirmed.
I’ll make the disclaimer that I’ve read enough of the former to get the flavor of it, but I haven’t seen the latter. Based on the title, I think the assumption is reasonable. As they say at Fox News, I report, you decide.
Anyway, the assumption that the MSM go easy on Democratic presidents while hammering Republican ones seems to be an article of faith with conservatives. In communications research, this is called “hostile media effect” — the media are always against what you’re for. But I don’t think in this case that it stands up to any kind of clear-eyed scrutiny.
Going back as far as I can reasonably remember about how the media cover the presidency, I thought the same news media that supposedly drove Nixon out of office and grilled Ford about pardoning him, was equally tough on Carter.
One thing I particularly remember was their puzzlement over what one reporter called Carter’s “weird religious trip” — which to any of us who grew up Southern Baptist was a pretty mainstream expression of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And of course he was grilled, too, about the economy and then the Iranian hostage crisis.
Reagan was a tough one for the media, and there I think it was a world view thing. He had a broad vision for the kind of country he wanted the U.S. to be, and the kind of world he wanted the U.S. to lead. But he was fuzzy on the details a great deal of the time and news media folks are all about the specifics. So to The Great Communicator’s admirers, the media were unjustifiably picking on a man who, even to many of his opponents, was personally likeable.
Oddly, I can’t remember a whole lot about the George H.W. Bush treatment by the media — he probably got a rougher treatment from conservatives in his own party than from the media about the “no new taxes” thing.
But Clinton was another story. Similarly to today, the conservative script was that the liberal media operated hand in glove with the Clinton administration, never asking a tough question. (Remember CNN as the “Clinton News Network”?) I didn’t see it that way, as I can’t imagine what reasonably credible story about Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, etc., went unreported during that era. And if you were to ask Bill and Hillary how much they love the MSM, I’m fairly confident of the answer you’d get.
And now we’ll see the inevitable comparisons of how Obama was covered with the news conferences of the previous eight years of George W. Bush. I would agree with those who say that there was a fair amount of showboating by reporters during the Bush administration news conferences. I hope that trend abates considerably.
But what I saw last night was a White House press corps doing what they’re supposed to do, no matter what party is in power — challenge respectfully, be skeptical and ask substantive questions. It’s their job.