As most news organizations have noted, Barack Obama made history on Friday by only taking questions from female reporters. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that that Obama’s decision was planned in advance: “As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the President’s closely watched, end of the year news conference.”
After the press conference, many reporters and pundits went on Twitter to express their pleasure with the gender dynamics of the press conference (Vox has a good roundup, which I will link to instead of reposting each tweet here.) As a former political reporter, I find this celebration warranted in many respects. It makes me think of all the brilliant and dedicated female reporters, editors and producers I had as role models.
That being said, at the end of the day I was deeply frustrated by Obama’s press conference strategy, because he only took eight questions. There are no formal rules about how long a press conference should be, only historical precedents. End of the year press conferences are a tradition. Even presidents who dislike press conferences tend to take 10-15 questions at the end of the year. It’s usually a way to talk about future policy goals, because few major policies and crises historically emerged in December.
Last Friday had a different news cycle than most end of the year press conferences. It was full of news! Let’s start thinking about what reporters may want to ask questions about:
- The Sony hack
- Race relations and policing
- The torture memo
- The Keystone pipeline
- The recently passed budget and its numerous hidden provisions
- Probably other things?
Each of these topics requires multiple questions in a press conference. If reporters only get to ask eight questions, they will probably leave at least one of these topics out. It is impossible to get enough depth for a story and breadth for multiple stories out of eight questions, because Obama will only say so much in eight responses.
At this point, it is important to remember that the modern, on-camera presidential press conference is not just about presidents giving updates and arguments to reporters. Presidents go on camera to give a performance. Along with providing news, presidents need to avoid this kind of lead in the New York Times:
“One purpose of today’s Presidential news conference was to promote acceptance of the Administration’s new Middle East security policy, but two incidents occurred there that are likely to have the opposite effect.”
We may assume this critical lead came from a recent Obama press conference, or maybe a George W. Bush press conference. It actually comes from James Reston, describing Dwight Eisenhower’s performance on Jan. 24, 1957. Reston looked at the “casual remarks” of Eisenhower describing his nuclear weapons policy, which “implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons.” Journalists’ questions have become more aggressive since 1968 (see Clayman et al), but as long as presidents have given public performances in press conferences there have been a subset of reporters interested in writing about the performance.
Presidents often prepare for hostile questions, but answering these questions in the moment is far more challenging. Actual responses always have a degree of improvisation, and may not work as well as they did in rehearsal.
(Bush’s justification of torture is hard to listen to, but he was willing to answer 8 separate questions on the topic.)
Obama only taking questions from female reporters is an ideal story to give about his “performance.” It is the rare chance for a president to plan out his performance and just stick to the script of which reporters to call on. Reporters and bloggers will pick up on the story. It’s very easy to write. If reporters didn’t notice Obama only called on female reporters, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded them afterwards.
Because people want one narrative about Obama’s performance, the all female reporters performance pushes the small press conference “is Obama ducking questions?” performance out of the picture. Would we learn more about Obama’s positions by having eight women asking questions, or ten women? The answer is clear: adding more questions would probably give more information. Even if Obama ducks the two additional questions, we wouldn’t be any worse off with 10 questions instead of 8. By the same logic, a press conference with eight women leading off and then two men at the end would be equal or better than a the press conference Obama actually had, since there were certainly more substantive questions to ask.
The symbolism in Obama’s press conference was nice, but it shouldn’t distract people from the incomplete substance.