Obama Gives Speeches, Interviews But Few Press Conferences

Media complain, but White House insists Obama is accessible.

January 13, 2010, 9:34 AM

Jan. 14, 2010— -- There's a tug of war in every administration between the White House and the media that cover it. Reporters want more access and more quality time to question the president, while staffers want to control how the message plays. The two goals are quite often at odds.

In the era of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs, the Obama Administration has been savvy about how it communicates its message and seems to agree with the previous administration on at least one point: Go around the media filter and engage directly with the U.S. public.

At issue is whether the president has an obligation to take questions on a regular basis from the group of reporters that cover him daily. The reporters say yes. The White House says, well, we choose to do that differently.

President Obama has not held a full news conference at the White House since July 22, the night he said that the Cambridge Police "acted stupidly" in the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

Since then, the president has delivered dozens of speeches and taken a few questions from reporters while with world leaders on foreign trips. But, lately, it is rare for him to take questions from the media at events or meetings at the White House.

Obama had five news conferences at the White House last year, one more than President George W. Bush had in his first year in office.

When it was noted last week that Obama had not had a news conference at the White House since last summer, spokesman Robert Gibbs turned it back on reporters.

"I think the last time ... we talked about the president's media schedule, and here you all, to a person, reminded me of our dramatic overexposure," Gibbs said.

Gibbs was referring to last year when the cable pundits were chattering about how everywhere you turned, there was Obama.

Five Sunday morning political show interviews, breaking down NASCAR and college basketball on ESPN, dropping by David Letterman's show and appearing in a promo for a new television show featuring comedian George Lopez, it seemed as though the president was on every channel talking about everything under the sun.

The White House was clear about its media strategy, wanting to go beyond the typical news junkie and reach a broad spectrum of Americans. But that didn't stop the pundits from claiming it was an Obama overload.

The White House reporters who cover him on a daily basis have a different view, said Caren Bohan, a White House correspondent for Reuters and a board member of the White House Correspondents Association.

"I don't think there is a feeling in the briefing room among reporters who regularly cover the president that he's overexposed in terms of giving too many press conferences," said Bohan, who has covered the White House since 2003.

Gibbs was again questioned about the news conference drought this week.

The White House spokesman said, no, the president was not avoiding reporters and reiterated the media's concern about overexposure.

When he asked for a show of hands from those who wanted a news conference, Gibbs got unanimous agreement from the press corps: Bring on the president.

White House Strategy, Reach the Most Americans Possible

The White House says the president is not hiding and, indeed, does regular interviews with a wide variety of media. But they're one-on-one interviews, not a large collective news conference.

Obama sat down at the end of last year for a slew of interviews with organizations such as ABC News, the Washington Post, PBS' "Newshour" and NPR. He has been interviewed this year by CNN's Roland Martin and People magazine.

Dana Perino, press secretary for George W. Bush, said the media is not being tough enough on the Obama White House.

"Ask yourself, would the media have sat so idly by if Bush had not given interviews? I think we all know the answer," she said. "Interviews are great ways to communicate, but as Vanilla Ice said, it's not the same."

The White House is making a strategic calculation on when it offers the president for a news conference. The Obama communications team has shown it's willing to have the president face the firing squad of questioners, but it would prefer to hold it during the television networks' prime time line-up.

A prime time slot equals more viewers and the administration wants to get the most bang for its buck.

The networks have strongly pushed back against this becoming a trend because airing an hour of the president means an hour of no commercials, and a loss of revenue.

The White House knows it has to balance its requests for network prime time coverage: Ask too frequently and the networks could simple decline to cover the president.

The other option is to put the president before the media during the day. But the concern there is that the potential audience is dramatically smaller.

As a result, the White House is making the strategic calculation that it will get better results by doing many selected interviews across a variety of platforms -- television, radio, print -- instead of daytime news conferences.

Reuters' Bohan said she hopes the White House adjusts its thinking on the issue of access to the president.

"I think it's very important that they do make him more available for press conferences," she said. "I think that the unfortunate trend in presidencies is that each year access gets narrowed more and more and I think we're seeing that trend this year."