Presidential Press Conferences: A Critical Approach

By Carolyn Smith | Go to book overview

attempt to avoid ending the press conference on a sour note. The selffollow-up questions were not follow-ups at all. Of the three reporters who took advantage of the new rule, one asked a second unrelated question, one repeated part of the first question, and the third clarified a badly worded first question. There were three consistency questions, two of them outside the lottery. Within the lottery, there was a single consistency question, and that one was ineffective because the reporter did not name the advisers and did not explain why the question was important.

It was the abundance of ordinary noncompetitive, noncreative questions that produced such a tame, tepid news conference. The nonimaginative questions produced less-than-sterling responses and no news. The most exciting thing to come out of this lottery was the president's jokes. The lottery was not a good press effort, and therefore was not a good presidential effort. Two television networks incorporated opposing views as a part of the press conference package. One even led the broadcast with the opposition, which gave the impression that Reagan was defending himself against Ted Kennedy. One network employed very creative formatting, wedging the president between two anchors, two reporters, and the opposition in a single short package. Producers don't have time for games when there is significant news to broadcast. Two of three networks did not mention the Reagan agenda, more federal job cuts; one major newspaper relegated it to a single paragraph. One network did not mention the president's response to any El Salvador query.

The trappings of the lottery, the unusual questions, and the personalities of the questioners received as much or more attention the president's agenda or other mainline news topics. Newspaper accounts contained minor inaccuracies, uncommon among experienced professional journalists interested in what they are reporting. The search for news where none existed led to sniping at little presidential snafus and overinterpretation of minor points. One reporter had time to complain that the tool which the president wielded so well, his good-natured humor, might be interpreted as not taking serious issues seriously. The lottery was not successful because genteel dialogue and accurate exchange of information are not what the presidential press conference is about. The White House, not the press corps, canceled the lottery.


NOTES
1
See descriptions of press conference in Sam Donaldson, "ABC World News Tonight", ABC-TV ( March 6, 1981); and in "The Jellybean News Conference"," New York Times, March 7, 1981, p. A10.
2
"The Jellybean News Conference", p. A10.

-241-

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