Tag Archives: Performance

So Trump Had a Press Conference…

I’ve mainly been working on non-politics projects lately, so I haven’t seen any of the Donald Trump press conference yet. I’m not going to try and assess his performance or the news coverage of that event specifically until I watch the film. On the other hand, I have published on presidential press conferences, so I wanted to cover a few broad rules of the setting that should translate to this week’s press conference or any future press conference:

1) Subsequent news coverage will focus on what Trump said, as opposed to getting a wide balance of opinion, unless a news organization dedicates a lot of space to the press conference

One of the main things I wanted to study in my dissertation was whether politicians could do things that affects the balance of opinion found in news coverage. I looked at press conferences from 1891-2009 since we can compare what was said to the subsequent news coverage, which is rare in news interviews. I measured balance of opinion as a proportion of quoted words from the president to all quoted words in news coverage of an event. The New York Times‘ average proportion was 0.757. In other words, nearly 76 percent of the quoted words came from the president versus 24 percent for everyone else. ABC Nightly News’ proportion was 0.695.

I found surprisingly few variables affect this ratio. As we might imagine, if a president has a joint press conference with another foreign leader they tend to get some quotes in the news as well. However, there was no significant partisan difference after controlling for different ways that presidents set up their press conferences. Approval ratings have tiny, insignificant effects. One peer reviewer was convinced that presidents who had been in the news a lot wouldn’t have as much control. After weeks of gathering additional data I found this had literally 0 impact.

The main thing that leads to more balance of opinion is whether news organizations leave enough space to quote people other than the president. When the Times or ABC only published one short story, that story would only try to summarize the main things the president said. The single most common outcome is a completely one-sided story. More important conferences will get multiple stories, each focused on a different issue or incident. This is when we get more sources.

2) The questions and the subsequent writeup are two different things

Press conferences are a performance. Since presidential press conferences are on TV, there’s more room for journalists to perform, not just presidents. Many journalists want to brand themselves as tough interrogators, holding presidents accountable. With the rise of partisan news, the image of holding people accountable has become less about “I’d grill everyone, even my own mother!” and more about partisan allegiances.

Working journalists know that they need to produce some story at the end. If they keep pressing the president on one topic, he may cancel the press conference or simply not say anything interesting. Since one press conference could lead to five stories on five different topics, there is pressure to move on instead of harping on a particular topic. The more a president opens up about a topic, the more there is for a journalist to write about. Aggressive flashes during the press conference can turn to deference afterwards. On the other hand, exchanges that seem innocuous as they happen may attract much more attention after the conference, when people can review the tapes.

3) The performance is news

Journalists have written about how people conducted themselves in on-the-record presidential press conferences for as long as presidents have held them on the record. I looked at these stories dating back to the Times’ very first story about Eisenhower doing one press conference for print media then inviting news cameras in for a second, shorter conference that repeated most of the same questions. Day-to-day news reporting in the Times and other objective news organizations follows a strict rule of avoiding judgments about a source’s moral character. Press conferences are an exception. Someone’s performance and character is fair game. One of the more common strategies is to have some reporters focus on the literal facts while one reporter focuses on the conference as a performance.

I assume a lot of people are writing about Trump’s performance as we speak. You may think journalists focusing on theatre is another one of those unusual Trump things. It isn’t. Journalists only gave a few years before hammering away at Eisenhower for poor performances in front of the camera:

“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.”

Throughout the article the reporter focused on Eisenhower’s communication style: “casual remarks…that implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons” and his “extemporaneous” answer to another question. Five months later, Eisenhower’s “casual dismissal” of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s appearance on CBS was used to imply “the tendency of the Administration to continue regarding propaganda as a nuisance rather than as an opportunity.”

4) Public opinion doesn’t affect journalists

My adviser Steve Clayman – along with several colleagues – studied whether unpopular presidents face more aggressive questioning. He found no relationship between approval ratings and any form of journalistic aggressiveness. I found no relationship between approval ratings and how much attention a press conference gets or the balance of opinion in those stories. It’s probably a good thing that the press will not be more deferential to a popular president. On the other hand, this means Trump will not get additional scrutiny just because he is deeply unpopular.


Debate Postgame Follies

After a night of reflection, most people who watched the second presidential debate seem to agree on which moment stood out the most. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked both candidates how the campaign has changed them, and specifically asked Donald Trump if he is a changed man since the 2005 tape where he talked about sexually assaulting women. In case you missed the debate and don’t want to watch all 90 minutes, here is the relevant eight minute segment courtesy of C-Span. Trump dismissed the tape as “locker room talk,” shocking a wide range of male athletes. Hillary Clinton criticized Trump’s broader record of denigrating groups of people. Then Trump tried to pivot to Clinton’s e-mails:

Trump: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.


So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been — their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

And then Clinton’s reply:

Clinton: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

Trump: [interrupts] Because you’d be in jail.

American televised presidential debates began in 1960. We have seen candidates who hate each other before. But there is no precedent in the United States for one candidate pledging criminal charges against their opponent if they happen to win the election. We’ve seen it in Ukraine, Congo and other nations conducting some of their first votes, but never in the United States. Some commentators immediately argued this was the most important part of the debate. On the other hand, CNN didn’t even mention this exchange in their first 20 minutes of post-debate coverage. What’s going on with CNN?

I happened to watch CNN’s post-debate coverage last night. They started with an A team of three correspondents giving their first impressions of the debate from the event floor. Then they went to a B team of pundits in a studio for their first impressions. After around 25 minutes they went back to the A team. Dana Bash was now focused on Trump’s desire to put Clinton in jail. The other commentators agreed that this was unprecedented in the United States.

Before the first presidential debate, Nate Silver said on his podcast that everyone should have to wait at least 30 minutes before giving any kind of on camera post-debate analysis. He has lived up to his word on FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate podcasts, even though he and his fellow podcasters know they will be losing members of the East Coast audience who can’t stay up after midnight for their podcast to finish. If CNN had waited 30 minutes before giving any post-debate analysis, they probably would have led with this threat or Trump rejecting his running mate’s views on Syria. (As of writing this, Trump rejecting Pence is one slot higher than threatening to jail Clinton on CNN’s website.)

Summarizing debates is hard enough as it is. A lot of things happen in those 90 minutes. Even if a debate is unlikely to change someone’s vote, we all have to sit down and prioritize what was the most important thing that happened, second most important, etc. I’m glad I never had to sit down and immediately crank out a story where I had to make those calls as a professional journalist. Among other things, I’d be very cranky about “style points” since I lost a lot of high school debates my freshman year strictly on “style points.”

Over the last year I’ve gotten re-acquainted with having to write on deadline, since I was recapping baseball games. Every sports game has a clear winner and loser. However, there are still some games where it is difficult to prioritize which specific play or strategy led a team to victory. Debates are much harder to summarize because different people may legitimately have different things as their top priority. People who care about Trump as a Republican standard-bearer may focus on any Trump statement suggesting internal dissension. Women who have survived sexual assault may place the greatest emphasis on Anderson Cooper saying “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” and Trump needing considerable prompting before he could claim he didn’t assault anyone. People worried about Trump violating the norms of American democracy may focus on his desire to jail Clinton.

It’s perfectly reasonable to pick out any of these moments as the most important thing to happen during last night’s debate. This isn’t an exhaustive list either. I just have to start somewhere. We all do. There’s a reason why the Washington Post put six stories next to each other at the top of their website a few hours after the debate. No single story can explain all the important things that happen during a debate. Of course there’s no way CNN commentators could do a good job going live right after the debate ends.

Of Course Matt Lauer Failed

Once I got more experience as a teaching assistant, I stopped asking professors to give me examples of an A paper. I started asking “what gets a B?” instead. In other words, what are the pros and cons of an average student’s paper? I knew most professors had similar ideals for A work but many of them couldn’t articulate the pros and cons found in the average student’s work. If we talked about the standards for average work in advance, it was much easier to evaluate students throughout the spectrum.

I haven’t been a teaching assistant for years, but I thought about these different ways of evaluating people’s work when I started reading reviews of Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of the Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday. If you missed it, James Hohmann of the Washington Post has a good summary of all the reactions. People have an ideal of what debate moderators should do. Lauer is the inverse of professors agreeing on an A. Everyone has different standards for an ideal moderator but they agree that Lauer wasn’t it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time grading papers, but I have a hard time grading Lauer on a simple pass/fail scale. So if you had to give Lauer a more specific grade, how many points would you give him out of 100?

It’s a weird question, I know. Unless you review media podcasts you probably don’t think about giving journalists a numerical score. People normally think of journalists and media organizations in binary terms (trust / distrust, like / dislike) or ordinal terms (favorite, second favorite, etc.) I’m asking what score you would give Lauer because there are several presidential debates coming up, so it would probably be good to define what counts as a “passing” grade for moderating a debate. If Lauer didn’t press Trump when he lied about always opposing the Iraq War, but he didn’t make any other mistakes, would you have given him a passing grade?


Moderators are graded very differently than other forms of journalism. Part of this is because debates are live. I used the delete key several times while writing this sentence, but live television has no delete key. I once worked at a local television station that declared someone died in a fire, went to commercial break, and then announced that person was alive. Accidentally announcing someone’s death is an embarrassing mistake, but still fixable. If Trump lies during a debate, and the moderator doesn’t challenge him immediately, it’s much harder to apologize to the audience and then go back to challenge Trump after the commercial. It’s impossible to grill Hillary Clinton over her e-mails then ask a softball question about them. Major news interviews, press conferences and debates are created to be a performance. We judge people on whether they can perform in the moment.

I read hundreds of examples of journalistic theatre for my dissertation research. Journalists have been evaluating performances in these presidential events for as long as they have been on the record. Both the theatre and the literal words people said are potential news. Writers can separate the two in to different stories. Television pundits do not separate the literal words from the performance in post-event coverage. (This has always been controversial.) It’s not unusual for a moderator like Matt Lauer to become one of the many stories after a high profile news performance.

Remember that when we read a news story, the interaction that took place between journalists and their sources is usually hidden, so we can’t really form an opinion of it. My favorite example of these negotiations at a high profile level is Bill Clinton answering questions about Monica Lewinsky, a fundraising scandal, and other domestic topics while flying over the Amazon on Air Force One. He wanted to “avoid being hammered by domestic questions” in his press conference with Brazil’s Prime Minister later that day (ABC’s Good Morning America, 10/14/1997, 7 AM broadcast).

Would you be critical of this kind of backroom deal leading to one on-the-record soundbite in a short story? These agreements are the engine that makes day-to-day reporting work. We don’t know much about these negotiations because even if a researcher gives everyone anonymity observing the interaction changes it. When Matt Lauer is interviewing the two main presidential candidates live, it’s a rare theatrical event that draws our attention. We expect journalists to do a more active job moderating the discussion because it’s the rare chance we actually get to see how they ask questions as they ask them.


It’s easy to look back on Matt Lauer’s performance asking questions and point out mistakes. Most pundits used this as a jumping off point to talk about what they thought the ideal moderator should do, what they should avoid doing, and how poor moderators could hurt the public. It’s important to discuss ideals. However, we know people’s definition of an “ideal” debate moderator is extremely subjective. I doubt I could sit down with my neighbors and reach a consensus on the appropriate number of questions to ask about particular topics. It’s even harder to figure out how hard to push a candidate who is giving a deceptive or non-responsive answer. One person’s “holding candidates accountable” is another’s “biased moderator hijacks debate.” Candy Crowley became a partisan lightning rod after challenging Mitt Romney in 2012.

As someone who taught sociology, I’m far less concerned about Matt Lauer’s individual performance than pundits. I don’t care if you want to give him a 55 or a 35 or a 0. They are all failing grades. What I am concerned about is the institution of journalists moderating candidate forums and debates. Can any journalist do well enough to get a passing grade moderating a debate in our current system? It’s easy to assume that Lauer is an individual incompetent and we just need to replace him with a better moderator. However, debates are such rare events that it’s easy to forget what the baseline is for an “average” moderator as we hold out for perfection. We forget that most debate moderators are closer to Lauer than Crowley, because the post-debate scrutiny makes it very hard for the Crowleys to keep their job (Crowley left TV news in 2014.) Hohmann argued “[moderators] are bound to be heavily criticized no matter what they do.” Fox News’ Chris Wallace has already explained why he will choose the more passive facilitator role:

WALLACE: I see myself as a conduit to ask the questions and basically to get the two candidates … to engage. I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it succeeds when it’s over, people will say, you did a great job. I don’t even remember you ever even being on the stage.

Q: What do you do if they make assertions that you know to be untrue?

WALLACE: That’s not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. … If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk. But I want it to be about them. I want it to be as much of a debate, people often talk that it’s simultaneous news conferences. I want it to be as much of a debate as possible. Frankly, with these two and the way — as Keith Jackson used to say about football rivals, these two just plain don’t like each other. I suspect I’m not going to have any problem getting them to engage with each other, but I don’t view my role as truth squading and I think that is a step too far. If people want to do it after the debate, fine, it’s not my role. “

Whatever you think of Wallace’s politics, he is offering a coherent theory of what debate moderators should do. Some progressive bloggers have already given Wallace an F, over a month before he takes his turn as debate moderator. On the other hand, staying out of the way as much as possible may be the only viable strategy for any kind of moderator to try and pass journalism’s hardest final exam. When I taught summer school, I only wanted to spend one day’s worth of class on an exam. That meant the final covered everything. I knew it would be a hard final, so I added an extra credit question to pre-emptively weight the grade. If challenging presidential candidates when they lie is so hard that almost every moderator assumes they will fail, we need to change the structure of the debate to let them succeed.

Here’s what I would do. Get a range of voters from across the political spectrum to sit in the debate room, like a jury. They have a green button when they can press when they want the moderator to dig deeper and challenge a candidate. They have a red button to press when they want the moderator to move on. If a majority (or maybe 60 percent) of the panel rings in, everyone gets notified. Moderators get the feedback, the viewing audience gets the feedback, even the candidates get an alarm. I would experiment with letting the panel pick the question topics too. The only way to become a debate moderator is to be a veteran DC journalist. These journalists are relatively experienced in interacting with politicians (it is a skill), but probably have different priorities than the audience.

I think the main advantage of this new debate institution is to diffuse responsibility away from the moderator as auteur. Wallace acknowledged he is responsible for everything: the questions, the follow-ups, when to cut someone off. He and other moderators bear the full responsibility for the performance. If the “jury of voters” decides when to challenge a candidate’s assertion, people will still get mad at the jury when it goes against them. This is actually the point – it would be easier for moderators to pursue the truth if it looks like an independent group is giving them permission to do so. I suspect letting people buzz in is also a more effective way to contain a candidate like Trump, who tend to ignore or attack journalists trying to corral him but is deeply unpopular with the general public.

People live tweet debates already. We are increasingly ready for a debate institution where people buzz in to give live reviews of candidate and moderator performances. Lots of people had feedback for Matt Lauer. Why not create a way to help him and help the country instead of just sitting on the couch saying “I could do better than that?”

Watching Obama’s Performance, Forgetting It’s Incomplete?

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
  • Cuba
  • 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.