Monday, May 24, 2010

What If They Gave a Press Conference and Nobody Came?

John Caruso at The Distant Ocean noticed something I didn't, or wouldn't have, in the coverage of President Obama's signing of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. "Speaking of press freedoms," one of the journalists present asked if he could ask a question about the BP oil spill, and The Only President We've Got replied testily, "You are free to ask them ... I'm not doing a press conference today." Obama hasn't given "a prime-time White House news conference in many months, despite much pleading from pundits and members of the media", which I found interesting because I thought avoiding press questions was one of George W. Bush's notable characteristics. Nor should you lobby him here... or here ... or over there, at least unless you have some big bucks for his 2012 campaign. But Obama is Not Bush, which is all that matters. Just look at his birth certificate, it says so right there, he's not Bush.

Several media outlets eked a story out of this, which John pointed out because they'd neglected to notice, or at least to mention, a more serious discrepancy between Obama's posturing about freedom of the press and the US' history of murderous violence against journalists. This only goes to show why either John Caruso nor I will ever find a job in the exciting field of White House journalism.

But I can't get very worked up about it either way. It's not necessary to ask the President about actual US practice, though of course it would be fun. He's shown before that he can't deal with inconvenient questions, though of course the corporate media aren't interested in asking them. (Did I mention that Obama is Not Bush?) You don't send a corporate lackey to do a journalist's job, and if the President won't answer questions the only alternative is to hit the pavement, read the documents, follow the money. After that you can offer the White House the opportunity to bloviate, obfuscate, and generally sling the bullshit, but it is not a good journalist's job to act as a stenographer to the President.

Not being allowed to ask questions at the President's pleasure is not a violation of press freedom as as I can see. The government in general is, I believe, required to report its doings to the citizens, and as citizens, journalists can read those reports and require the government to explain them. If the government refuses to answer, that is news too. But I can't help wondering what kind of questions about BP's oil spill that reporter had in mind. What does Obama have to say about it at this point that he hasn't said before?

There are journalists who'll react to this suggestion by screaming that if they did that, they'd never get access to the President or any politician again! Like that's a bad thing. But politicians and the government in general need journalists as much as journalists need the government, and maybe more. What if the White House gave a press conference and nobody came? What if, when staff called the press to ask where they were, they were told that press conferences -- especially Presidential press conferences -- were a waste of journalists', and the nation's time? It'd never happen, but that's just the problem. In general the corporate media, with a few honorable exceptions who manage to sneak in from time to time, are no more interested in changing the routine than the presidents are.