When Does the White House Watchdog Bark?

More often than you think

The veteran UPI correspondent Helen Thomas, recently dislodged from the front row of the remodeled press briefing room, has seen a lot in her forty-six years covering the White House. The octogenarian’s tenure has spanned nine presidents and two generations of journalists. But in some recent books, the famously combative Thomas claims that her colleagues’ willingness to ask tough questions has waned over this period, particularly during the Bush administration and the run-up to war.

She may be right, but only if a long-term trend suddenly reversed itself during the Bush administration. The questions from White House correspondents at presidential news conferences from Eisenhower through Clinton grew more assertive, more adversarial, and more demanding over time, according to new research led by the UCLA sociologist Steven Clayman and published in February’s American Sociological Review.

Clayman and his colleague John Heritage scored more than 4,500 questions on five measures of aggressiveness–”initiative,””directness,””assertiveness,””adversarialness,”and ”accountability.”Questions got higher marks for ”initiative”if they began with a preamble that defined a context for the question and if there was a follow-up. ”Directness”measured conversational bluntness in contrast to conversational caution, politeness, or self-effacement. ”Assertive”questions called for a ”yes/no”response or even for a particular ”yes”or ”no”(”Aren’t we in an economic downturn?”). ”Adversarial”questions had preambles that were critical of administration policies. ”Accountability”questions explicitly asked for an explanation or justification of presidential policy in a ”Why did you …?”or a ”How could you …?”form. Fourteen coders worked together in pairs to analyze the data. The raw data, gathered from a sample of 164 press conferences staggered quarterly between 1953 and 2000, were analyzed to answer a question that is often asked, but rarely tested systematically: ”When does the watchdog bark?”

The surprising results go against Beltway conventional wisdom. Clayman found no ”honeymoon”period for new presidents and no free pass for popular ones. Moreover, the research undercuts the notion that the press turned rabidly antiwar during Vietnam–or any time between Korea and Desert Storm. Far from foaming at the mouth, White House journalists were twice as likely to be ”cautious and deferential”on foreign and military affairs as on domestic matters, a finding that held through periods of war and peace, recession and prosperity. Meanwhile, increases in the unemployment rate emerged as the surprise inspiration for increases in overall aggressiveness. The mainstream media’s sensitivity to what Clayman and colleagues call ”the Main Street economy”gives their questioning a ”mildly populist tilt.”

One dimension of aggressiveness–the degree to which questions are stated bluntly–grew steadily from 1953 to 2000, unaffected by any factor the sociologists measured. They explain that journalistic conduct may mirror a broad cultural trend of declining formality in American life and a general ”coarsening of public discourse.”But at the same time, journalists are ”plainly discriminating in their behavior toward presidents.”Questions on foreign and military affairs, while generally restrained, grew more aggressive over time just as domestic questions did. The reason for the relatively greater deference in the international arena may be that journalists have less access to independent information overseas, making them ”disproportionately dependent on the administration’s framing of events.”Patriotism also probably matters, according to the researchers. American citizenship is ”apt to be foregrounded”in the minds of U.S. journalists raising questions about foreign affairs.

Did these trends, stretching over nearly fifty years, suddenly reverse themselves in the Bush press conferences? Clayman is currently working to extend the study from 2000 on. When he’s got his data, we’ll know. He also hopes to eventually address the relationship between aggressive questions and the character of subsequent coverage. Whatever the results, Clayman’s 1953—2000 evidence demonstrates a long-term trend to greater boldness in White House journalism. The presumption of a sudden turn to timidity in the Bush years may yet prove exaggerated.

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Michael Schudson & Tony Dokoupil write The Research Report for CJR.