One Man’s Press Conference Question is Another Man’s… .

Olivier’s very useful follow-up post (see his comment here) on the issue of journalists’ questions at presidential press conferences, coupled with the earlier comment from my colleague Murray Dry, are reminders (as if you needed it!) that there is plenty of room for disagreement (and learning) on this blog, particularly when discussing topics that, for whatever reasons, have not been the subject of much prior political science research.  For those coming late to the conversation, both Murray and Olivier questioned my criticism of Jeff Zeleny’s four-part question to Obama at the most recent presidential press conference. I thought the question elicited nothing particularly useful about either the administration’s recent policies or about Obama’s presidency – or Obama – more generally.  More importantly, I didn’t think the question had much probability of doing so.  Murray disagreed, saying he found Zeleny’s question the most interesting one asked at the conference. Building on this, Olivier reminds that we often judge the efficacy of a particular question by the response it elicits.  Journalists going into a press conference, however, don’t have the luxury of hindsight; under a great deal of uncertainty, they must use their best judgment regarding how best to use their precious opportunity to ask one of the perhaps dozen questions a president may answer in a typical one hour news conference.  No one can be entirely sure what question will prove newsworthy and which – as his anecdote about April Ryan’s question to Bush regarding the role of faith in his decision illustrates – will be treated with the scorn I heaped on Zeleny’s question.

Olivier and Murray raised valid criticisms.  Deciding what to ask a president at a conference is more art than science, and ought to be assessed accordingly, particularly since one can’t be sure how a president will respond and because people react differently to whatever response occurs.  I will say that as Zeleny was asking his question – but before Obama gave his answer – I turned to my wife and muttered something about what a complete waste of a question this was. So my initial judgment did not depend on Obama’s answer.  In retrospect, I still think there were many more questions that Zeleny might have asked that had a higher probability of eliciting a more newsworthy – however one judges newsworthy – response.  But I passed judgment from the comfort of my easy chair, glass of scotch in hand – it was Zeleny who actually had to come up with a question, working with a great deal of uncertainty and under the media spotlight. As Olivier suggests, it’s easy for me to play post-press conference quarterback.  And as Murray’s comment suggests, many people thought Zeleny asked the most interesting question.  For what it’s worth, the post-conference reaction among the punditocracy revealed a similar mix of sentiments, with Zeleny both praised and ridiculed.

There are two broader lessons here.  As I noted in my initial post, press conferences serve different purposes for presidents, journalists and the public.  Not surprisingly given these different objectives, reactions to both questions and answers are likely to vary across and even among audiences/participants.  One man’s incisive query is another’s wasted opportunity.  Second, on many issues discussed here, there isn’t much in the way of “science” on which to base assessments – evaluating press conferences is more akin to judging movies. (The most recent Star Trek reboot is excellent, by the way.)  Although my primary purpose with this blog is to use political science research to discuss current events as they relate to the presidency, I’m not unwilling to cross the line and present my own personal pundicating on topics of interest about which there may be little prior research.  I’m confident that you can separate reasoned opinion from more rigorous analysis and – when you disagree – are willing to offer up a countervailing opinion.  That’s what this blog is all about and what – I hope – separates it from many of the other blogs you might read.  We are trying to educate and learn, not create still another echo chamber where likeminded people can reinforce one another’s prior convictions.

(And I don’t really believe Zeleny should be banned from all future press conferences. Although a period of probation may be in order.)

Ok. End of sermon.

In a comment on my last post, Gary Roosa points out a recent Newsweek article examining Obama’s use of staff – a topic about which I’m writing my latest book.   I’ll have more to say about this topic in later posts, but I think the article is useful in pointing out the basic tradeoff all presidents make when recruiting and organizing staffs: finding the balance between conserving the president’s time versus maximizing his exposure to information and competing viewpoints.  Every president struggles to design a staff organization that does both – unfortunately, efforts to optimize one invariably diminish the other.  I’ll have much more to write about this.

And if you get a chance, take a peek at the NY Times article re: unease among House Democrats about the process by which the House is putting together a health insurance bill.  As the following passage suggests, it is a nice illustration of the difference in lawmaking processes in the House and the Senate: “The Blue Dogs said the policy-making process in the House compared unfavorably with the approach in the Senate, where two committees have held open forums and the chairman of the Finance Committee, a Democrat, is working with the panel’s senior Republican.

In the letter, Blue Dogs representing districts in states as varied as Maine, California, Pennsylvania and Alabama lamented that “our contributions, to date, have been limited.” They praised “the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues.”

Just another reminder that the House is run by the majority party leadership, while no one really runs the Senate.

One comment

  1. Prof. Dickinson, I’m inclined to sympathize with your reaction to the question (hence my silence till now). Here’s my thinking:

    Since this isn’t Frost/Nixon or even Couric/Palin, each questioner is given very limited time in which to ask their single (often multi-part) question. My expectation is that every question probes to relevant matters of the day, and enables the President’s reaction to be news, no matter what.

    Obviously, approaching press conferences this way can lead to an opposite equally-frustrating game – verbal gotcha. This is no more or less useful than pee-wee league questions.

    But there is a middle ground between soft-pitch press conferences and verbal gotcha. People like David Plotz (Slate) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) seem to navigate this space very effectively. When I read/listen to/watch them, they ignore verbal games in favor of assessing intellectual honesty. I think this is where Zeleny’s question falls down.

    To take Olivier’s point, the President will almost always have ample room to fall back to talking points. However, his response to an effective question should be news, no matter what. I would have loved to ask President Obama to specifically address an obvious inconsistency; for example, at some point he said X (say, that cutting $18 Bln in pork is an insignificant drop in the budget bucket), and now he’s saying Y (say, saying $17 Bln in budget cuts/savings is quite significant). Even a non-answer would itself give us a lot of information about the President and the administration.

    With that rubric – strong questions ellicit a news-worthy answer, no matter what – my gut reaction to Zeleny’s type of question is that it seems somewhat lazy. I don’t need to go to J-school, study political science, or even follow American politics, to ask that question. (For the sake of this discussion, I’m ignoring the spotlight and difficulty of even asking questions in that context. They are professionals, after all.) There’s a lot of fodder for probing questions challenging intellectual honesty.

    Olivier, I think your example of John Dickerson proves that. No matter what Bush said, even if it was boilerplate, his answer would be interesting because it reflects a reaction (official or not) to a real-world situation.

    Thinking about Prof. Dickinson’s original post, this is where I fall on the “newsworthiness” question. Every question should force the President to show us his (one day, her) thinking more clearly.

    All that said, to Prof. Dry’s point, there may be real tactical value in Zeleny’s approach: President Obama is very good at deflecting direct questions, unlike his direct predecessor and like President Clinton. An open-ended question may allow for an honest and less-guarded response. It’s like a 3-pointer – higher-risk, higher-reward.

    Anyway, I thought I’d (finally) chime in, once the dust settled a little.

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