Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Source Material: Presidential Press Conferences: The Importance and Evolution of an Enduring Forum

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Source Material: Presidential Press Conferences: The Importance and Evolution of an Enduring Forum

Article excerpt

Meetings between government officials and the reporters who cover them have become a regular feature of American political life as questioning of officials by reporters is seen as an integral feature of our system of government. When President Bush met in the Rose Garden with President Karzai of Afghanistan, the two chief executives spoke and then responded to reporters' queries. President Bush pointed out before they did so, "We'll answer questions in the tradition of democratic societies." (1) Of all of the forums where presidents interact directly with the press, the presidential news conference is the only one with a lasting tradition and a transcribed record of almost all of its sessions. Presidential interviews by reporters have been intermittent, and regular, transcribed, short question-and-answer sessions are a relatively recent development in presidential-press relations. Press conferences are important as the single extended forum where we view presidents in a vulnerable state while they are questioned by reporters who have no ties to those they query.

What presidents say in those sessions reveals a great deal not only about their views on contemporary public policy issues, but also about their personal abilities to explain themselves and their actions. Since introduction of news conferences by President Woodrow Wilson in March 1913, chief executives have gradually surrounded themselves with staff to write their speeches, prepare events showcasing their strengths, and provide reporters with daily explanations of their thinking. Thus the press conference, where the president must think on his feet to explain his conduct and policies, is the single forum where we can consistently view a president on his own, with his staff reduced to an audience role.

As scholars, we have done little comparative analysis of what press conferences reveal with their content, their formats, their terms for the release of information, and their revelations about presidents and administrations. But they are a unique resource. This article examines the development of presidential press conferences and identifies the areas of comparative inquiry important to understanding their current shape and status as a resource for presidential publicity. This analysis builds on two earlier articles in Presidential Studies Quarterly, which focused on what constitutes a press conference and the alternative forums in which presidents respond to reporters' queries. (2)

The Importance and Evolution of Presidential Press Conferences

"I feel that a large part of the success of public affairs depends on the newspaper men--not so much on the editorial writers, because we can live down what they say, as upon the news writers, because the news is the atmosphere of public affairs," observed President Woodrow Wilson in his first transcribed press conference on March 22, 1913. (3) "Unless you get the right setting to affairs--disperse the right impression--things go wrong." Wilson and his successors have viewed their relationships with news organizations as important to public understanding of issues with which government deals, and have treated presidential press conferences as a primary vehicle for explaining their policies and actions. News organizations have come to regard press conferences as the best place for direct access to the thinking of chief executives on issues they regard as important. Unlike responses provided by presidential staff members, press conferences are a venue where reporters hear from the president himself with little intervention from his staff. Thus, both sets of participants consider the venue all-important.

An Enduring Forum

From President Wilson onward, presidential press conferences have been a regular, if not always successful, feature of presidential-press relations. (4) Every president from Woodrow Wilson on has held them. The development of this forum came about through the efforts of the president and his staff, but the commitment to such sessions is testimony to the press's continuing interest in the presidency no matter who serves as president or what he says or does. …

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