Once Again, No Housing Questions for Obama

White House press corps doesn't follow up on ProPublica story

Much of President Obama’s press conference earlier today was devoted to the latest partisan fight in DC over the American Jobs Act. But there were also some good, wide-ranging questions asked of the president. ABC’s Jake Tapper, leaping off an earlier query about Occupy Wall Street, pressed him on the decision not to prosecute any bankers in connection with the financial crisis. Matt Spetalnick of Reuters had good questions about China’s currency manipulation and America’s worsening relationship with Pakistan. And Aamer Madhani of USA Today asked about the White House response to the biggest story in the world today, the financial mess in Europe.

Still, the press conference continued an unfortunate trend: the apparent indifference of the White House press corps to the continuing fall-out from the housing crisis and the government’s response to it. Over the summer, I reviewed the transcript of every full-fledged press conference of the Obama presidency to that point. Among the things I discovered:

The word “foreclosure” was also used only once [in reporters’ questions]—on Feb. 9, 2009, when Jake Tapper listed it as one of several criteria that might be used to judge whether the economy had rebounded. The word “mortgage” has been used twice, and not since April 2009.

The word “housing” itself, meanwhile, seems not to have been used at all—and that’s despite the fact that the tail end of 2010, when coverage of foreclosure fraud peaked, is also when Obama held press conferences most frequently

As I acknowledged at the time, this isn’t surprising—press conferences tend to focus on the news of the day, and the housing crisis is more of a gradual, slow-burn sort of story at this point. Still, this is an important story that belongs on the press corps’s agenda, and there was some slight reason for hope that this morning’s press conference might be an exception. That’s because just two days ago, ProPublica’s Paul Kiel published a terrific article about how the government’s feckless and ineffective mortgage modification program has been accompanied by feckless and ineffective official oversight. (Felix Salmon has more praise for the story here.) Kiel’s story makes a good case that some government auditors didn’t even understand the mechanics of a program they were supposed to be supervising. And while this may never seem a sexy topic, the article was grounded in previously undisclosed documents, giving it a dash of the reportorial flash that gets journalists’ attention.

But no luck. Of the nine reporters who had a chance to question the president today, none so much as hinted in this direction.

It’d be wrong to make too big a deal about this—presidential press conferences are hardly the sine qua non of political journalism. Still, today’s event represents a missed opportunity to get this issue back in the news cycle, and to hold the president accountable for a failed policy. So here’s a reminder for the White House press corps that when ordinary people have an opportunity to put questions directly to Obama, the housing crisis (and education, another subject the pro reporters neglect) is one of the things they ask about—something to keep in mind for POTUS’s next presser.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.