Return to:


Maturing Media?

Published: Apr 22 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

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 others' questions.

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 liberal.

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 you made?"

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 answers.

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.


Recent Articles by

Born-Again Hawks
The Pain In Spain
Rove's Platform

Oratory Power?
The In-Crowd
A Dubious Hawk