The day after the 2014 midterm elections was not a time of celebration for the losing Democrats, and the White House press corps was determined to get the party’s most senior member on the record about what was surely a disappointing night for the president. Ten reporters were given the chance to ask questions during the 74-minute press conference, and seven of them asked the president some version of this question: Was it your own fault, and how will you change your behavior and agenda? To each question, President Obama was equally determined not to take the bait, frustrating a White House press corps unable to evoke a note of regret, anger, or introspection from a man who had just learned he would spend the final two years of his presidency tangling with a GOP-run Congress.
Julie Pace of The Associated Press tried first. “You said during this election that while your name wasn’t on the ballot, your policies were. And despite the optimism that you’re expressing here, last night was a devastating night for your party. Given that, do you feel any responsibility to recalibrate your agenda for the next two years? And what changes do you need to make in your White House and in your dealings with Republicans in order to address the concerns that voters expressed with your administration?”
The president repeated much of the upbeat tone of his opening statement. “The American people overwhelmingly believe that this town doesn’t work well and that it is not attentive to their needs. And as president, they, rightly, hold me accountable to do more to make it work properly,” Obama said. “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody, not just from a particular state or a particular district. And they want me to push hard to close some of these divisions, break through some of the gridlock, and get stuff done. So the most important things I can do is just get stuff done, and help Congress get some things done,” he added, then went on for what would be a six-minute answer to Pace’s question and follow-up.
Perhaps a more provocatively put question might get a more direct answer? Jeff Mason of Reuters gave it a shot, reminding Obama that he had labeled the 2010 midterms a “shellacking,” and asking what the 2014 elections should be called. Obama demurred, calling it “a good night” for Republicans. Ed Henry of Fox News asked Obama why he was “doubling down” on his approach to Congress, and followed with a poke-the-bear question about whether there was something about Obama’s leadership that was the problem. Obama, in another lengthy answer, responded that he hoped Republicans would work with him. Major Garrett, correspondent for CBS News and National Journal, tried a two-pronged approach to squeeze some news out of the president, either on the elections or the rumored executive order on immigration policy. Were the elections a referendum on Obama’s intentions to use his executive power to change immigration rules unilaterally?
Obama was unfazed. “I don’t want to try to read the tea leaves on election results. What I am going to try to do as president is to make sure that I’m advancing what I think is best for the country,” the president responded, not signaling that his executive order on immigration would come just over two weeks later.
The press conference, just the fourth formal, solo question-and-answer exchange Obama had held in the White House in 2014, has come to define the current state of White House reporting, one in which there is a gulf between the press and the head of state it’s charged with covering. The answers are long, leaving time for just a few questions from a press corps with already-limited access to the president. Actual news is almost never made, since the White House has new tools allowing it to release and manage news on its own schedule and terms—its online news report is but one of these.
The press, meanwhile, shows itself to be a willing hostage to the modern demands for a click-worthy story and a tweetable quote. At press conferences, the overwhelming tendency is to ask about the day’s headline or to look for the “gotcha” question, instead of addressing long-term accountability issues. Frequently, one journalist after the next will ask the same question, as they did during the post-election news conference. Reporters ask questions not to get information, but to get a reaction. And even with that strategy, they rarely succeed.
The relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in a half century.
An exhaustive study of every official exchange Obama had with the press corps in 2014, supplemented by a review of daily press briefings and interviews with more than a dozen current and former correspondents and White House press secretaries, reveals a White House determined to conceal its workings from the press, and by extension, the public. The research, paid for by a fund established in memory of former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, makes clear that the media most responsible for covering the president and his inner sanctum are given little insight into how decisions are made or who influences those decisions, whether from inside or outside the White House.
Evidence suggests that the relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in a half century. John F. Kennedy held frequent press conferences—23 a year, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidency and media scholar—and also had an ongoing relationship with Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. Jimmy Carter would play softball with the press corps. Bill Clinton attended an off-the-record dinner with African-American reporters at the home of then-Newsday White House correspondent William Douglas. By 2014, White House reporters’ ability to question the president was largely limited to the 44 exchanges Obama had with the media, just five of them in solo press conferences.
The troubling irony, White House reporters say, is that they are working in what is arguably the freest press in the world, in an era of easily delivered information, and in a nation where an aggressive and unfettered media is considered essential to democracy. Yet they find it nearly impossible to accomplish what they see as their central mission: to explain why the president does what he does. “The people who cover the president know him the least,” said Peter Baker, a White House correspondent for The New York Times. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s he like?’ As if I knew.” Despite having covered Obama for the entirety of his presidency, Baker said, “I don’t know what makes the man tick.”
The result is a sheaf of White House reporting, including tough analysis of White House policy and decisions, that relies on outside sources but conveys very little insight into how those decisions were made. Journalists diligently vet legislative proposals, reporting GOP opposition or the potential impact on various industries or constituencies. They note when the president says or does something that appears at odds with what he said or did at an earlier time. White House reporters who are part of a team and have time do go deeper, trying to get information by grilling Congress, agency officials and outsiders who are in contact with the White House. The New York Times’ Baker and his colleague, national security writer Eric Schmitt, used that strategy to pen an incisive story last September on how the administration underestimated the threat from the Islamic State.
But such efforts are scarce, and increasingly reliant on beat reporters who cover other sectors of government, not the White House. “Something really important has gone missing, understanding the president and having both sides trust each other enough so [the press] understands what’s going on. We don’t understand him as well as we should,” said US News & World Report writer Kenneth Walsh, who has covered the White House since 1986. “And I think the country loses because of that.”
There has always been a certain tension between the White House and the press corps that covers it, and that is natural and healthy, press secretaries and reporters say. But the conditions can breed frustration; journalists, for example, for many years have been barred from walking around all but limited areas unless they are chaperoned by staff. Presidents have long tried to get around the press when it suits them. But the dynamics have changed dramatically with the current president, especially with the escalation of technology, social media, and an increasingly sophisticated ability to identify and reach niche audiences. Previous presidents have held a town hall meeting or given an exclusive to a specialty publication to get a message out or announce a new policy to a friendly audience. The Obama White House has done this, too, and taken it a step further, becoming the first to have its own in-house video reporting operation, which produces “West Wing Week,” a Friday show viewable on the White House’s website. That enables the administration to bypass the press corps completely, if it chooses.
“They’re trying to get their message out all by themselves and they don’t feel, correctly or incorrectly, that they need to rely on the White House press corps anymore,” said Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who covered the George W. Bush administration.
In December, when the Obama administration wanted to let the world know about the president’s decision to make Alaska’s Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas leasing, it bypassed the White House press, announcing the move via a video of the president on the White House Facebook page. White House press secretary Josh Earnest defended the strategy, saying the matter was important to the environmental community and would have been largely ignored by the White House press corps if he’d offered it up at the daily briefing. Still, he allowed that it did “rankle some in the briefing room. They viewed it as carving out [a piece of] their traditional role of reporting breaking news.” But by releasing it on the White House’s Facebook site, Earnest said in an interview, “this got more attention and better play among the people who care about it the most.” He has a point. The White House video announcement, which might well have been given short shrift by the national press corps, was greeted with thanks by online commenters.
The influence of social media cannot be overstated: It drives both the news and the tone of the questioning, and coverage has suffered. Earnest said he gave up on the morning “gaggles”—once-valuable, off-camera sessions in the press secretary’s office where correspondents would ask a few questions and get a sense of the day’s schedule—because reporters would just stand around tweeting everything Earnest said.
Part of it is about branding. Broadcast and now even print reporters are eagerly marketing not just their news organizations, but themselves, as the sweepstakes for digital audience intensifies. From editors back home, the pressure is on to “push the brand, push the brand,” said Jim Carroll, who covers the White House for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The White House tries to get its message out on Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, but reporters, too, are pushed to brand themselves and collect legions of Twitter followers, Carroll said, adding that this is good for his newspaper and for reporters.
Would a reporter have asked the president to brand the 2014 elections, for example, without the lure of Twitter? Journalists say probably not. “It is the catchphrases, it’s those little tweet-sized words and phrases by which we measure our presidents now,” said former ABC correspondent Ann Compton, who recently retired after covering the White House for four decades. “It’s not good. It’s not healthy. It’s not informative for the American people. But we sure do overdo it now. Our attention span is down to 140 characters.”
Television, long an influencer of media behavior and White House strategy, has in recent years added a theatrical component not just to the prime-time presidential news conferences, but the daily press briefings. It’s common, Compton said, for five or six network and cable TV reporters to ask virtually the same question, one after another. Absurd, perhaps, but the correspondents aren’t just looking for an on-camera answer. They need themselves on camera, too, asking the tough questions. (“Too often, we sound like bad community theater actors trying to sound like reporters,” quipped Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo News and host of a weekly SiriusXM show on “potus” Channel 124). And when the dynamic becomes about performance, the substance of the briefings naturally ebbs, making the sessions less useful for getting actual information. Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who has offered a mea culpa for being the first to allow live TV coverage of the full press briefings, said the sessions took on an entertainment quality during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when cable news executives told him viewership went way up during his briefings. “I think cable television got hooked on putting the briefings on television, and then everyone reverted to theatrical roles. Then, the serious reporters stopped going,” McCurry said.
Some reporters do keep going, if for no other reason than to gather up a few White House talking points and get them on the record. “You do force them to take questions, and there’s a benefit in that,” said National Journal White House correspondent George Condon, who is working on a book on the White House Correspondents Association. “Does he answer every question the way we’d like? Of course not. But it does advance the story.”
An examination of transcripts, press briefings, and the on-camera theater of the news conferences offers a telling view of the increasingly limited relationship between the president and the press. In the whole of 2014, according to veteran CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps exhaustive records on presidential events, Obama’s 44 exchanges with the press included five formal press conferences and 20 joint press conferences with foreign leaders; the remainder were short question-and-answer periods after the president made a statement. Not included in Knoller’s tally are the one-on-one interviews Obama has with individual local and national reporters. Of the formal press conferences last year, few produced news (an exception was Obama’s December response that Sony should not have canceled the North Korea-themed spoof The Interview).
As much as it can, the White House tries to control the pressers. While Ronald Reagan would respond to raised hands (sometimes tapping a reporter he knew would ask an offbeat question), Obama calls on reporters from a prepared list and is the first president, Condon maintains, to stick to that list religiously. It’s not that the questions asked are frivolous—much of the 2014 agenda included queries on Russia sanctions, Ukraine, ISIL, immigration, and the president’s relationship with Congress, but broader, longer-look issues get pushed aside by the daily pressures. A report from the US Conference of Mayors last year showed that homelessness is increasing in major US cities, but the president was not asked about it during a press availability last year. A UNICEF report last year showed that child poverty in the US is among the worst in the developed world, but Obama was not asked to answer for it. And even the torture report, released in early December, was stale, by modern news standards, when Obama held his next press conference on December 19. No one asked about the report, much to the bafflement of Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first White House press secretary.
Gibbs said a good question for his former boss would have been, “How do you balance, Mr. President, your first act, of outlawing this [torture]” with “watching a 6,000-page report being issued during your administration, in which you held no one accountable” for the behavior. “And then just step back” and hear the president reflect on it, Gibbs said.
Politics often drives the direction of the questions. At an April 17 press conference, La Opinión Washington correspondent María Peña brought up immigration, but led her query with Obama’s relationship with congressional Republicans. “I’ve got a hot spot for you here in the US. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said—or claimed—that you haven’t learned how to work with them. And he’s angry that you’re attacking the GOP on the lack of movement on immigration reform,” Peña said, asking for a response. Obama said he had had a good conversation with Cantor, then reiterated his oft-said view that Republicans needed to get it done. “We know what the right thing to do is. It’s a matter of political will. It’s not any longer a matter of policy. And I’m going to continue to encourage them to get this done,” the president said.
In the same presser, several questions were about the Affordable Care Act—largely focusing on its political fallout—with reporters asking whether Democrats should be more aggressive about promoting the law, and how long it would be a “political football.” Responded Obama, “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. But in the meantime, how about us focusing on some things that the American people really care about?”
White House correspondents say the president is deft at running out the clock by “filibustering” with his answers. Reporters are obligated (the wires, in particular) to get the chief executive on record on whatever crisis or purported scandal is happening. “A plane’s missing, and everybody zigs to that,” Ed Henry of Fox said. “Sometimes we’re zigging, when we should be zagging.”
Gibbs said the press corps may still feel burned by the faulty intelligence ahead of the Iraq War, and now reporters worry that they might miss something. As a result, Gibbs said, they treat everything as “an inflection point. Everything is a huge disaster. Three days later, it’s not something we’re even talking about,” Gibbs said. But it’s not always easy to know what is a flash-in-the-pan story, and what is a developing crisis. Ebola, for example, Henry noted, “was a story that might have been hyped up too much, but a lot of our viewers were very concerned about it.”
Not only are there limited formal sessions, reporters have fewer daily chances for a surprise visit. Obama rarely does a “pool spray”—when the press pool pops in at the top of a cabinet meeting or bilateral chat with a foreign leader, and gets the president to comment on the big news of the day. During previous administrations, such events used to happen several times a week. Now they are rare, and when they do happen, reporters don’t get newsy responses—though not for lack of trying. A read-through of the 2014 exchanges shows Obama deflecting questions (often with a promise to announce something at a later date) and showing some jocular annoyance at the persistence of the press.
‘It is the catchphrases, it’s those little tweet-sized words and phrases by which we measure our presidents now.’
Before a January 14, 2014, cabinet meeting, Obama thanked the press for coming, spoke for about seven minutes, then added, “with that, I’m going to kick you all out.” Two questions about the National Security Agency were tossed out, to which Obama replied, “Actually, it’s getting close. So I’ll have quite a bit to say about that very soon.”
At an August 6 press conference at the State Department, Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev asked Obama if he would use the federal contracting process to discourage companies from moving overseas to avoid paying US taxes. “I’m not going to announce specifics in dribs and drabs,” the president said. At a September 5 press conference in Wales, The Wall Street Journal’s Colleen Nelson asked if he planned to delay an executive order on immigration. Obama told her he would “be making an announcement soon.” On October 16, after making an Oval Office statement on Ebola, Obama was asked by a pool reporter if he would appoint an Ebola czar. “If I appoint somebody, I’ll let you know,” he said.
At an April joint press conference in Manila with President Benigno Aquino, Obama deflected a question from Talev about further sanctions against prominent Russians, only confirming that an announcement would be made later in the day, and that it would build on past sanctions. And when Henry took the issue up a notch, asking Obama to lay out his foreign policy vision and noting criticism of the president’s approach, Obama revealed some testiness. “Well, Ed, I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine. And there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I’m not sure you ran them,” Obama said. He then went on at length about occasions when his approach had been successful, defining his foreign policy in a manner he had previously—that he would use military force as a last resort.
What is baffling to White House reporters is that they believe the White House wants to find ways to make sure the press knows how the president makes decisions. When the administration wants to tout a success, the White House makes officials available (again, generally on background) to provide the “tick-tock” of how the decision-making unfolded. But the administration wrestles with how to do that while still keeping a tight grip on “the message.” Often the White House wants to have it both ways. On an overseas trip last year, the president came to the back of the plane for an off-the-record session with the travel pool. “My foreign policy,” Obama reportedly told the group, “is don’t do stupid shit.” In case anyone thought that was an offhand remark, the president, leaving for the front of the plane, turned around and channeled his old role as instructor: “So what’s my foreign policy?” he asked. “Don’t do stupid shit,” the media responded in sing-song unison. Reporters honored the off-the-record terms of that session, but the phrase was later repeated by administration officials to reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times. Reporters ran with it, and the White House was upset. “They wanted it to get out, then they complained about it getting out,” Baker said.
As he did on Air Force One, the president occasionally holds off-the-record sessions with reporters. But again, journalists say they are not especially revelatory. Some of that may be a function of the president himself. Obama hadn’t spent much time in Washington before he became president, and so didn’t develop the sort of mutually trusting relationship reporters foster with Capitol Hill lawmakers. And while most first-time presidential candidates start out having just a few reporters following them in Iowa, Gibbs noted, Obama’s campaign started out in the equivalent of a football stadium. The president respects the press corps and understands, from an institutional perspective, the important role it plays—he just doesn’t always understand or agree with the way reporters execute it, Earnest and Gibbs both said. Obama, Gibbs explained, does not come naturally to the media game in Washington. And the irritation sometimes shows in his interactions with the press.
When reporters, after a presidential meeting with Central American leaders, tried to ask Obama questions about refugees, Obama chafed. “Actually, I wasn’t going to take questions, but let me just respond to this particular question because I felt like some of the stories were a little over-cranked,” the president said. He then explained that refugee status was reserved for very specific circumstances, and said he hoped people would apply for such status in their home countries instead of taking a “dangerous” trip to the Texas border.
“This breathless, moment by moment, eternal cycle of cable news—that’s what he doesn’t like,” said David Nakamura, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post. “It’s superficial. [The administration thinks] it’s more about the ‘gotcha.’ That probably gets on his nerves.”
That came through in Obama’s August 1 news conference, in which he appeared annoyed that no one had asked him how and why things were so much rosier than when he took office. Finally, Obama said, “I think it’s useful for me to end by just reminding folks that, in my first term, if I had a press conference like this, typically, everybody would want to ask about the economy and how come jobs weren’t being created, and how come the housing market is still bad, and why isn’t it working. Well, you know what, what we did worked. And the economy is better. And when I say that we’ve just had six months of [adding] more than 200,000 jobs [per month] that hasn’t happened in 17 years, that shows you the power of persistence. It shows you that if you stay at it, eventually we make some progress. All right?”
Several questions ensued, about Ebola and CIA Director John Brennan, and Obama again seemed irked. He joked that no one had asked him about his looming birthday plans, then added, “You’re not that pent up. I’ve been giving you questions lately.”
That exchange underscored the grave distance between the press corps and the president many had covered day in, day out, for more than six years. And it raises an uncomfortable question: Is there any point, anymore, to having a dedicated White House press corps, scrambling for any contact with the famously enigmatic president? At what point does spending 11 or more hours a day following around one man become a fool’s errand, better replaced by coverage of the White House and its occupants from afar? If the distance between the president and the press corps is becoming so institutionalized, why bother trying to bridge it?
Correspondents say that despite the frustration of trying to break through, there is real value in getting a chance to see the president in action, be it at a formal press conference or at the top of a bilateral meeting with a foreign leader. And what appears from a distance to be superficial contact with the president—watching him as he gets in and out of his limousine, or when he walks into a meeting—can help the press gauge his mood.
Los Angeles Times writer Christi Parsons, president of the White House Correspondents Association, says the omnipresence of the press corps keeps the White House from concealing some major secrets—such as the state of the president’s health. In some countries, Parsons noted, a leader could become ill and no one would know. Just watching Obama get in and out of the presidential limousine on the way to events gives her a chance to see if he looks well, or angry, or worried. Yes, access is limited, and yes, Parsons abhors the “TV grandstanding” she sometimes sees at presidential press conferences. But “you can’t underestimate the importance of a vigorous, independent press that provides this eye on things all the time,” Parsons said. Or as the president might call it, getting “a little over-cranked.”
Susan Milligan is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who covered the White House in the 1990s for the New York Daily News, and in 2009-2010 for The Boston Globe
This story was published in the March/April 2015 issue of CJR with the same headline. This piece was paid for by the Helen Thomas Fund, in memory of the trailblazing White House Correspondent.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts of the 2014 press conferences and briefings can be found at whitehouse.gov/briefing-room