Presidential Press Conferences: A Critical Approach

By Carolyn Smith | Go to book overview
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The first part of this book explores the nature of the presidential press conference. Chapter 1 argues that exchanges between presidents and the press are based on a fundamental adversarial relationship that is recognized by both parties and can be described, although it is difficult to quantify. Chapter 2 presents a short history of the adversarial press conference, focusing only on those items which will help us define the press conference as a semi-institutional, quasi-spontaneous, inherently adversarial public encounter. Chapter 3 outlines press conference goals. For the president, the goal is persuasion; for the press, it is accountability.

The second part of the book sets forth an approach to press conference criticism that takes into account the unusual rhetorical situation described in the first part. Chapter 4, "The Press Conference Agenda," equates roughly with speech purpose, but the critic has to account for both the president and the press. The heart of this approach is Chapter 5, "Structuring a Press Conference." The starting point of criticism is the ability to analyze the motivations contained in the questions. Only then can the critic decide if the answers are adequate. Finally, Chapter 6, "Good Questions and Good Answers," offers guidelines for criticism.

An approach to press conference criticism ought to include some sample criticism, and that is the subject of the third part. Chapters 7-9 are a detailed criticism of Ronald Reagan's relationship with reporters during his first sixty-nine days in office. Understanding the initial period of contact between the president and reporters is important to any press conference criticism. It is fitting that we choose for this study the first president to complete two terms since the formal press conference evolved to its current format in 1961.

A full account of press reaction to Mr. Reagan's first press conference is in Chapter 8 of this book.
"President's News Conference on Foreign and Domestic Affairs", New York Times, December 9, 1988, p. A18.
Cited by Hugh Sidey, "A Full Dress Finale", Time, December 19, 1988: 26.
Larry Speakes, Speaking Out/Inside the Reagan White House ( New York: Scribner's, 1988), pp. 121, 136.
Tom DeFrank, "A Time for Kiss and Tell; as the Reagan Years End, the Knives Come out", Newsweek ( April 25, 1988): 21.
Hugh Sidey, "The Presidency -- Speaking out of Turn", Time ( April 25, 1988): 36.
David S. Broder, "Presidents Should Speak for Themselves", Washington Post, April 17, 1988, p. C7.
See Report of the Commission on the Presidential Press Conference ( Washington,


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