Published: Apr 22 2004
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
Has this immature president spawned a sudden maturation of
his inquisitors? Recent evidence indicates just that. And we can
only hope that this growth spurt continues.
Since the day George Bush walked into the White House, he's been
the beneficiary of an overly respectful press corps that seems to
have assumed that Bush's obvious limitations required a considerable
degree of tolerance.
Yet at the president's recent—and rare—prime-time press
conference, reporters startled those of us resigned to yet another
silly exercise in mutually self-serving faux engagement. One after
another, they asked questions that had pop and verve, and when the
president did not answer, they essentially followed up on each
Perhaps global crisis—and the sight of a steady stream of
American body bags —has finally granted nervous newsniks the cover
they need against the claim that a rigorous skeptic is a biased
Clearly, from the vantage point of the public interest, the press
conference should not serve merely as a propaganda tool of the
administration and an opportunity for reporters to prove to their
bosses that they have a command of facts and an authoritative public
presence. No, the purpose is to get new, revealing insights from a
person who is rarely forced into the open—momentarily unprotected by
skins of advisers, representatives and spinners far more capable of
manipulation than the chief himself.
So, this time, reporters tried—they really tried. Regarding
WMD's, ABC's Terry Moran asked, "How do you explain to Americans how
you got that so wrong?" And The New York Times' Elisabeth
Bumiller asked, "Do you feel any sense of personal responsibility
for September 11th?" NBC's David Gregory posed "You never admit a
mistake... [D]o you believe there were any errors in judgment that
Those questions had a serious ring to them, but these kinds of
philosophical propositions are more about the questioner scoring a
point then the respondent being held accountable. They allow for
long, rambling answers, which is just what they got. In fact, the
president managed to handle every single one of the 15 questions as
if each posed the exact same set of issues, and therefore required
the same stock response. One reporter asked Bush if, given the huge
number of private contractors, the foreign presence isn't window
dressing. Bush chose to mishear the question, warning against
belittling the role of foreigners, then launched into a no-doubt
prepared speech full of homilies about freedom, helping starving
people in Asia, and virtually anything and everything he could
remember the good guys are for, including faith. Once, faced with a
query about his evasive tactics, he rambled through evasive
generalities until it was time to call for the next question.
How could a president, facing some of the toughest minds in
journalism, manage during a 45-minute Q&A almost never to say
anything unplanned and unrehearsed? The one notable exception proved
how a little dexterity from the pack can make a whopper of a
difference. Time magazine's John Dickerson asked Bush to name
his biggest mistake, and lessons learned. Somehow, Bush's coaches
had missed this one rather common, job-interview formulation of a
familiar theme—not whether he had made a big mistake, but which one
he wanted to tell us about—and Bush nearly fell apart. "I wish you
had given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for
it... I'm sure something will pop into my head." He knew not to give
his critics any fodder, but the abject phrasing itself is something
new, or at least rare.
To their credit, reporters at the president's press conference
did follow up on each other far more often that at previous events.
One sequence questioned whether Bush's failure to communicate his
policies to the American public might cost him the election. But
Bush had no trouble handling this succession of softballs. The head
of what may be the most secretive and manipulative administration
ever, he painted himself as so devoted to the good of the country
that polls mean nothing to him.
The most important thing a reporter can do in this situation, as
in most situations, is to focus on clarity and candor. This usually
comes down to two precepts: (1) ask good questions, and (2) demand
An effective grilling springs from a close study of the speaker's
prior reactions and statements; its goal is to craft a query that
not even a first-class wriggler intent on avoiding accountability
(and adept at faking candor) can easily mishear, or otherwise dodge,
twist, distort or misinterpret.
Questions should not contain compound sentences. They should be
terse and direct. And they should be specific, citing incidents,
events or statements tied to particular dates. When The
Washington Post's Mike Allen asked why the president insisted on
bringing Cheney with him for his private session with the 9/11
investigating committee, Bush was clearly rattled. He dodged lamely,
declaring "Because the 9/11 commission wants to ask questions."
Allen, however, rushed right in. "But why together?" Bush ducked
again, then quickly went on to another questioner, forgoing his
usual long rambling response. Clearly, this was a potential turning
point, the moment for cooperation among reporters. But when Allen's
third attempt was rebuffed, the next reporter did not stay on the
point, preferring to ask his prepared question.
As a general rule: one simple idea per question, with a short but
powerful establishing fact as background. For example, compare the
number of press conferences held by other presidents, insert a pithy
quote about the First Amendment role of presidential press
conferences in a functioning democracy, and then ask Junior to
explain who made the decision to keep him so remote, and why?
Never before in history was it conceivable or thought necessary
for a president to be so programmed. Never before has it been so
important for news organizations to think long and hard about how to
unmask this pathetic charade.