Pressing the President

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By: Joe Srupp

So now that George W. Bush has been re-elected, all eyes are on what he plans to do in his next term. But those who cover the president’s second act should also be closely watched, if the past four years of White House press coverage are any indication.

It would help, for starters, if the president would hold more news conferences.

His day-after gathering with reporters last Thursday was only his 15th full press conference since taking office nearly four years ago. That is the fewest number of solo press conferences during a first term by any president since 1913, according to a study released earlier this year by Presidential Studies Quarterly.

FDR had more than 300 during his first term, while Harry Truman had 157 and Bush’s father had 83 press conferences during his lone four-year stint. Richard Nixon, who famously hated the press, had twice as many pressers as Bush the younger during his first four years, and that occurred with the Vietnam War raging. Nixon even had nine news conferences during his shortened second term, with one of the biggest presidential scandals and a resignation brewing.

Now I realize reporters and editors cannot determine how many press events the president will agree to hold. But, they can put the pressure on for more, as well as for increased access and on-the-record briefings.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, reporters were noticeably timid with tough questions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and proven Saddam links to al-Qaeda. Spotty coverage eventually led The New York Times and The Washington Post to offer self-criticisms earlier this year. The press also failed to extract day-to-day information from the most secretive administration since Nixon’s.

Election coverage this year wasn’t much better as the national media obsessed over Vietnam: Bush’s hazy National Guard service and John Kerry’s non-existent swift boat “scandal.” Voters who went searching for real news on what either candidate planned to do about the economy, Social Security, health care, poverty, and educational reform, had to look long and hard for answers.

How much did you read (or write) about the massive budget deficit this fall? Oil prices? Environmental issues? Why 9/11 happened and the fate of the 9/11 commission’s report?

And now that Bush has managed to keep his job, his administration’s effort at controlling media dissemination and tightening secrecy is likely to expand. Bush was uncooperative enough with the press when his 2000 victory was questionable, but with a majority win, don’t expect him or his people to be any more forthcoming.

That means reporters, editors, and publishers (many of whom count the president as their friend), have to demand closer scrutiny of a supposedly “straight-talking” president who offers little respect for the public’s right to know. Newspapers need to take an even stronger role as watchdogs.

The first chance they had to show their stuff, however, offers little in the way of hope that things will change.

At last Thursday’s first post-election press conference, Bush responded with routine answers to easy questions about whether he planned to change his cabinet and if he expected Democrats to work with him, responding yes to both. But he failed to answer more serious inquiries about whether more troops were needed in Iraq and how he would appoint Supreme Court justices. When the president responded with non-answers, no one challenged him to be more specific, too often the norm for the White House press corps.

At the same event, Bush appeared more arrogant than ever, half-joking that he would follow a “one-question” rule and asking if most of the reporters in the room would continue to cover him. When many raised their hands, he said, “Gosh, we’re going to have a lot of fun then.” If reporters on the Bush beat continue to let him slide, his fun will be our frustration.

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