The Flack Pack: How Press Conferences Turn Serious Journalists into Shills

Article excerpt

It's 4:30 in the afternoon on the windswept lawns of the president's estate at Kennebunkport, and dozens of journalists are getting tired of watching the dog romp. At last, the president's men take their positions near the two vacant lecterns, the screen door swings open, and, as the reporters raise their notebooks, or steady their cameras, or crouch to extend their ungainly microphones, the president of the United States and the prime minister of Japan step into the sunshine. After the two men exchange some prepared pleasantries, George Bush looks out at the broad semicircle of expectant journalists and spreads his hands. The president's press conference of July 11, 1991-the 90th in a remarkable string of almost weekly duels with the White House press corps-begins: ME President, " asks Helen Thomas of UPI, "did the prime minister bring a check along? And have you solved the rice problem? And do you think that there's a growing anti-Japanese sentiment in this country?" Ah, democracy. Where else in the world would a mere journalist feel free to address the maximum leader, in the presence of a foreign dignitary, in such insistent tones? Where else would you find such pointed, immediate requests for information about the daily workings of government?

And why, given all that, does George Bush look so smug? "I can handle this one, " he says, beginning to grin. "Before I answer the question may I say that I predicted with 100percent accuracy who would ask the first question and what it would be. "

If you're a public official and you have something to hide-corruption or dissent in the ranks, the dismal performance of your most touted initiative, or simply your slippery grip on current affairs-one of the best ways to do so is to call a press conference. A press conference will accomplish at least three things for you: It will prove you're not afraid of whatever it is you're afraid of, it will impart to your carefully prepared, artful answers the appearance of spontaneity and hence the warm glow of sincerity, and it will help keep that roomful of journalists, seemingly so intent on poking into your business, out of it.

The key to this guaranteed success lies in your ability to control the content of what looks like a completely unpredictable forum. Even the most seemingly contentious press conference is fundamentally a scripted event, with the roles to be played and the topics to be discussed clearly defined. Much to your advantage, the press is cast dramatically in the role of adversary, an appearance magnified by what John Quincy Adams once testily called journalists' "affectation of showing their independence." Who knows when those reporters might choose to leap for your jugular? Who knows what bones they might drag from your closet to lay at your feet?

Well, you do. While Ronald Reagan was president, much was made of his handlers' elaborate efforts to prepare for press conferences, from grilling their man ahead of time to carefully pointing out on a television monitor the journalists he should avoid calling on. That preparation paid off. "In press conferences, out of 30 questions and follow-ups the press would ask, we might fail to anticipate one," wrote the president's press secretary, Larry Speakes, in his book Speaking Out. "And often we could even predict which reporters were going to ask which questions."

Yet, despite all the frustration with the Reagan administration's success at "managing the news," there's nothing astonishing about that tally. "Everyone agrees that you can anticipate the questions," says one of George Bush's spokes people. Jimmy Carter, who weathered his share of rocky press conferences, once remarked that "you can anticipate about 80 to 90 percent of the questions ahead of time." Jerry terrorist, who served as Gerald Ford's first press secretary, says his people did even better than that. "We scored 98, 99 percent of the time anticipating what was coming down the track by way of questions, and the one or two questions that surprised us tended to deal with easy personal things like Do you enjoy Camp David as much as President Nixon did? …