How was the media’s performance at this week’s presidential press conference? With one or two exceptions, pretty good. In addition to all the expected (and important) questions about the debt ceiling debate, reporters pressed President Obama on same-sex marriage, the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing, whether deficit talks hinder job creation efforts, even how the military should handle suspected terrorists captured in the field. And while Obama didn’t really make any news that he hadn’t planned to, the press did get some interesting answers—and some interesting non-answers—for its trouble.
One of the striking things about the questions, though, was just how wedded they were to topics that were already part of the news cycle. Even that unlikely query about protocols for captured terrorists, from Mark Landler of The New York Times, was prompted by testimony delivered in Congress this week. Against this backdrop, a question about a pressing but not especially “newsy” issue—like, say, wrongful home foreclosures, which Paul Kiel of ProPublica recently reported are still occurring—would have been truly unexpected.
This isn’t the least bit surprising. The president calls a press conference when he wants to communicate a message about a particular newsworthy subject, which is likely to dominate the event. (In Wednesday’s case, that message was: Blame the Republicans for this debt ceiling impasse.)
The risk in this arrangement, though, is that issues that aren’t deemed worthy of a press conference of their own—and that don’t, by virtue of circumstance, come up as a news peg just as one happens to be convened—simply do not get asked about. That hardly prevents reporters from covering those stories, of course. But it means that they are left off the agenda of a ritual that’s at the center of the relationship between our press and our government, which may mean opportunities for accountability and insight are missed.
To get a sense of how real this risk is, I took a look at the transcripts for press conferences throughout Obama’s presidency, which are available at the website of The American Presidency Project. (For Wednesday’s presser, not yet archived by the APP, I used the transcript from whitehouse.gov.) I omitted press conferences that did not take place on U.S. soil, as well as those in which Obama appeared alongside a foreign head of state or other top official, because the type of number of questions asked at those events tends to be different. That left sixteen press conferences—six in 2009, seven in 2010, and three so far this year. I collected all the questions asked by reporters at those events, and discarded Obama’s replies.
I then grouped the questions in five chronological sets and fed them into Wordle, the gimmicky-but-fun Web program that spits back “word clouds” in which more frequently occurring words appear in larger font. (The program eliminates many common English words; I deleted some other non-substantive words and phrases—“like,” “just,” “Thank you, Mr. President,” etc.—that appeared frequently.) This exercise is obviously extremely arbitrary and unscientific—but if taken with a fistful of salt it can also, I think, be illuminating.
Here’s the Wordle for the first three press conferences of Obama’s presidency, held between February and April 2009:
What stands out here is how little anything stands out. Part of that, no doubt, is because so early on, the media was still trying to get the new president on the record on a range of issues. Part of it is that there was not yet any gridlocked legislative debate consuming all the attention in Washington.
But part of it, too, is that at this stage Obama was making a conscious effort to involve niche media outlets. And reporters from those outlets asked questions that don’t normally get asked. On March 24, a reporter from Ebony asked about homelessness. On April 29, a reporter from BET asked about the black unemployment rate. These were opportunities for the president to signal his engagement with these issues to parts of his base, no doubt. But they were also refreshing deviations from the typical catechism of a White House press conference.
Here’s the Wordle for the second set of 2009 conferences, held between June and September.