Persuasion and Accountability: Press Conference Goals
The presidential press conference has evolved into a semi-institutional, quasi-spontaneous, inherently adversarial public encounter between the president and the press.
Furthermore, the main obligation of the president in this dialogue is to persuade. The main obligation of the press is to hold the president accountable for his policies and his actions. These contrary obligations produce a delicate but natural tension -- a balancing act, if you will -- that should be played out in each and every good press conference exchange. The thin high wire snaps when the adversarial relationship degenerates into hostility, as it did in the Nixon years. The tightrope sags when the press plays willing foil to the president, as in the early Kennedy years.
These press conference goals seem pretty innocuous at first glance. The problem is that no one who participates in or writes about press conferences sees them quite this way. Presidents, journalists, press secretaries, and critics alike subscribe to one view or another of press conferences' goals but don't see a press conference as potentially embodying contrary but equal obligations each and every time in each and every exchange. Our first critical task is to outline what a good press conference ought to achieve for the president and for the press. Only then can we argue that the best press conference criticism ought to treat both questions and answers as legitimate objects of concern.
Presidents spend more time convincing people to accept administration remedies for the nation's problems than they do formulating them.