Presidential Press Conference Play-Acting
The process is much more stage managed than advertised.
WaPo’s Paul Farhi shares “The dirty little secret of White House news conferences.”
President Biden offered such a long and nuanced response to the first question he got at Wednesday’s White House news conference that it almost seemed he knew in advance what the reporter would ask.
As it turns out, he more or less did.
A photo of Biden holding a notecard during the presser may have inadvertently revealed one of the dirty little secrets of presidential news conferences: They’re less spontaneous and freewheeling than they appear to be, with a fair amount of stage managing behind them.
The card in Biden’s hand, titled “Question # 1,” clearly directs the president to call on a Los Angeles Times reporter, Courtney Subramanian. The card has Subramanian’s name (including a pronunciation guide for her surname), her affiliation and even a headshot.
More important, photos taken by an Agence France-Presse photographer show what Subramanian was likely to ask about. Under the heading “Foreign Policy/Semiconductor Manufacturing,” the card reads, “How are YOU squaring YOUR domestic priorities — like reshoring semiconductors manufacturing — with alliance-based foreign policy?”
Which is generally what Subramanian asked Biden about when he called on her at the joint news conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol: “Thank you, Mr. President,” she began. “Your top economic priority has been to build up U.S. domestic manufacturing in competition with China. But your rules against expanding chip manufacturing in China is hurting South Korean companies that rely heavily on Beijing. Are you damaging a key ally in the competition with China to help your domestic politics ahead of the election?”
How did Biden — or, more accurately, his press handlers — know that question was incoming, and know to call on Subramanian? The answer is because they asked her.
Scandal! The liberal lamestream media is in the tank for the Dems!
For many years, White House press office employees have routinely polled reporters about their priorities and interests in advance of news meetings to anticipate what their boss might be asked while on the podium. The practice is also common in news conferences with Cabinet secretaries, such as the secretary of defense and secretary of state.
“Every White House press office will try to go around and take the temperature” of reporters, said a veteran White House reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his employer had not authorized him to comment. “They want to look smart in preparing their boss for what we’ll throw at him.”
Press staffers as far back as the George W. Bush administration did so, he said. Presidents have tended to call on the reporters his aides have directed him to, he said.
That seems less than kosher, frankly. I can certainly see why Presidents and cabinet secretaries would want to be prepared for the questions they’re called on to answer. Not only does it save them from potential embarrassment but it means the press and the public alike get better answers.
Still, they’re very much trying to present the illusion that they’re answering hard-nosed questions off the cuff, not pre-selected questions. Presumably, this means that they can avoid questions they don’t want to answer—thus incentivizing reporters who want to get a question in to take it easy.
Ostensibly, reporters don’t feed the actual questions:
But in their advance conversations, reporters rarely offer anything as specific as Subramanian’s topic; the typical answer is “news of the day,” which leaves the options for questioning the president open. “You don’t want to give away your question,” said the veteran reporter. “It’s incredibly bad form to do that.”
Subramanian didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Times, Hillary Manning, said Subramanian didn’t provide White House officials with a specific or even general question in advance of the news conference. However, on Tuesday, the reporter mentioned to officials that semiconductors were “one of several topics she might want to cover,” said Manning.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, in her briefing Thursday, said officials didn’t receive a question from Subramanian before the news conference. She added, “It is entirely normal for a president to be briefed on reporters who will be asking questions at a press conference and [the issues] that we expect they might ask about.”
The White House also polls reporters before Jean-Pierre’s daily briefings, and before “gaggles” (informal gatherings with officials). The inquiries come via email or in person. Another reporter — who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because their employer hadn’t authorized them to talk about the topic — said a White House press staffer emailed them recently asking “if there were any topics in particular” that they wanted to explore at an upcoming gaggle.
While it’s unusual for a reporter to offer detailed and specific questions in advance, even vague suggestions can help shape the administration’s encounters with the news media.
Knowing that a reporter wants to ask about a topic the president wants to emphasize can help cull the list of who’ll be called on to ask a question in the first place. Conversely, it can act as an early-warning system, alerting the president to avoid a reporter who might raise an uncomfortable subject — say, Biden’s possession of classified documents or Republican efforts to emphasize the federal investigation of his son Hunter Biden.
As a rule, however, reporters say their pre-news-conference responses to these inquiries don’t preclude them from changing the subject and asking anything they want.
To the extent this has become the norm, it’s silly for the RNC to try to score points on this. Bush the Younger did this and Trump’s handlers tried and failed to impose this discipline on him. But they should really do away with the pretense that they’re answering the questions as they come rather than pre-selected topics the reporters fed the press team. It has a certain pro wrestling feel to it.
Try as far back as H.W. Bush.
There was an infamous occasion when Bush the elder answered something cogent and relevant, that was completely unrelated to the question asked. He later explained he’d been expecting a different question, so he didn’t pay particular attention to what the reporter was actually asking.
And yet we’re supposed to take seriously the White House Press Corp’s whining about how Biden doesn’t do enough formal press conferences.
I fail to see how being prepared is a bad thing.
And I don’t believe for a minute that this is a “dirty little secret” given that this has been the norm for decades and the number of reporters and White House staffers involved.
This is the very definition of a slow news day.
The question asked did not seem like a softball. It was about priorities that might conflict with our allies’ policies and interests, and how do we manage that.
Nobody seems to be claiming that the question was a plant, or a question like “are you the greatest president of the century, or the greatest of all time?”.
@Scott: The problem, as noted in the OP, is the play-acting. If reporters are going to feed their questions to the staff ahead of time, it should be transparent.
@Jay L Gischer: Again, this isn’t a dig at Biden or a suggestion of a scandal. Several administrations in a row have done this and the press corps has gone along with it.
Dammit…I gave myself a headache when I rolled my eyes so hard at this…
@James Joyner: it is a suggestion of a scandal by the RNC though. They, and their social media howler monkeys, have been trying to use such things (and especially this since day 1 of the Biden administration) to insinuate that the press is in the tank for a Dem admin; and
Biden needs to be led by handlers because he is a senile old man.
Heck, this was a tried line of attack on Obama as well to say the former, while saying he was an empty suit, almost affirmative action president instead of the latter.
@Thomm: But, but, Obama used a teleprompter!!
How often do GOPs see a scandal just because they don’t know how anything works? A current case being that J6 perps awaiting trial without bail are being held prisoner!! In jails!! And the jails aren’t nice!!
Biden surprised S. Korea president Yoon yesterday by asking him to sing American Pie at the White House yesterday. Raise your hand if you think that wasn’t planned. (Heavy accent, but a pretty good singing voice.)
@gVOR08: The RNC knows damn well how these things work. What hey are relying on is that those who will run with these things either don’t, or don’t care and just want to be petty. They have learned quite well from the talk radio personalities over the years.
@gVOR08: I think it would be nice if all world leaders were expected to prepare a song when visiting the White House, but I wouldn’t want the White House to choose the song. Too much opportunity for meddling, plus they might not know the song.
That said, there is no chance that any world leader doesn’t know Baby Got Back.
But, imagine a summit where Putin sings Pale Blue Eyes to Biden.
@Thomm: When you can’t attack on policy (because their policies are working and you’ve got squat when it comes to alternative positions), then you’re left with nothing to attack on but character and acuity.
Of course, when the head of your party ends up being the poster boy for lack of character and acuity, well, that becomes a weaker line of attack. But, you’ve got to stick with it, because the alternative is to moderate your policy positions to broaden their appeal. And that ain’t happening.
And wore a khaki suit.
The priors to this so-called “scandal” are that a presidential press conference should be an adversarial event where the cream of the American political press gallery tries to catch the president out in “gaffes”, “backflips” and “gotchas”, thus creating a tweet that will “go viral” and reinforce the self-importance of the journalist in question.
An alternative attitude – one I share – is that the purpose of such events should be to elicit information. The more comprehensive and accurate the information the better. And since only a fool would expect a president to be able to provide instant expert answers about any and every aspect of their administration, it is very sensible for reporters to give advance notice of the issues they intend to ask questions about.
For what real purpose, the transparency. What real effect and real general benefit? The presumption of greater transparency as a good in itself, is something of a knee jerk I think.
I remember in one of the many biographies I have read of Teddy Roosevelt he did the same thing in his press conferences, in between river-swims, and he threatened to revoke the press credentials of a reporter who didn’t want to play by the rules.
Everything old is new again.
This reminds me of every congressional hearing I ever participated in when I worked in DoD. Everyois pretty well scripted—it must make posturing for C-Span easier.