The relatively scant attention television paid to the president's press conference this past week was significant in the downgrading of an institution that once no national news organization would even have considered ignoring.
It wasn't until Eisenhower that the president could even be quoted directly, and not until the mid-1950s that full transcripts were released and conferences were televised. But then televised sessions became part of the national fabric, held more or less regularly even when the White House was little disposed to have them, as in the late Nixon and Reagan years. Because as a rule they were important to both the president and the media, the president could virtually command the networks to give him half an hour or more of prime time - and never mind what announcements were expected or what programs had to be pre-empted.- EARLY IN THE REAGAN presidency, Ch. 4 drew some criticism because it had the temerity to cut off a conference near the end and go to regularly scheduled programming, an action that was unprecedented as far as I know.
Before Bill Clinton took office there was much speculation and even some angst among newspeople as to whether he would hold regular press conferences. Clinton figured early on that he could leapfrog the reporters and go directly to the people by using unconventional channels, like town meetings and the Larry King show on CNN, to get his message across. It was a strategic decision that some in the media thought showed his contempt for them and in any event contributed to his rocky relations with the press at the outset. It also overexposed him in casual appearances. And it may have helped to erode the confidence newspeople had in the press conference as a means of revealing and explaining presidential policy.
- NOW THAT HE IS IN the fight of his life for the limelight and trying to seize the initiative from the Republican opposition in the House, his staff wants him showcased in forums in which he appears more presidential, but television isn't cooperating.
The news conference last week was only the fourth in prime time, which could deliver a large nationwide audience, and the first evening conference in eight months. Still, only one of the major networks, CBS, carried it live and in full. It also was seen on CNN, PBS during the MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour, and on C-Span (though we no longer get the public affairs channel here in the evenings. American Movie Classics, which uses C-Span's Ch. 27 after 5 p.m. and on weekends, played a 40-year-old Charlton Heston epic, "The Far Horizons.")
NBC and ABC decided to go with the popular and profitable sitcoms "Frasier" and "Full House," saying that the conference was unlikely to have any momentous announcements.
- THE SNUB TO THE president was all the more acute because television gave as much attention to Newt Gingrich's speech extolling his first 100 days of the "Contract for America." That was unprecedented attention for a congressman, however powerful.
Press attitudes toward the presidential press conference began changing in the George Bush years, possibly because he held so many of them and those mostly in the afternoon. All the networks skipped one of Bush's conferences, in the summer of 1992, reasoning that the conference should be covered live only if it were expected to produced major news.
The reluctance of the networks to carry live coverage of the Clinton conference, while at least partly of Clinton's own making and understandable, is unsettling nonetheless.
First, it shows how easily the networks will callously and unapologetically opt for profits over public service. There's even some sophistry in their predicting the conference wouldn't make news. Although it produced no stirring announcements, the conference led front pages across the nation the following day. Some reporters found it as important for what it did not say - dealing with his legislative agenda - than for its repetition of Clinton themes. In any event, everything the president says and does potentially has far-reaching ramifications.
True, the press conference has some faults. The time and place and ground rules are always the president's. The press conference is far from the knock-down give and take of the British question sessions in the House of Commons, where the prime minister is heckled by the opposition. But the shortcomings are outweighed by the overriding virtue of giving us the opportunity to judge the president's mental acuity and style as he responds to pointed and adversarial questions.
- HIS CONFERENCE appearances for that reason alone deserve maximum coverage.
The press conference was never more important in this regard than during the Reagan years. He constantly made befuddled gaffes that required major damage control by his spin doctors. He wasn't deeply hurt because he was so self-assured in his conception of the big picture that he was never embarrassed by his mishandling of the details. But the conference was virtually the only way he got away from the set pieces and scripts provided by his writers and that provided us with some measure of his acquaintance with the issues.
Clinton is loquacious, immersed in the issues and able to talk about them with an eloquence no other president since Kennedy could match. You'd think that he'd adore the conference as a platform and the give and take with the press corps. His sudden reconciliation with the press conference as a way to get his message out may mean more meaty and newsy conferences, especially since the president seeks to refurbish his image and compete with Congress on the national stage. That may make TV a lot less inclined to ignore him when he most wants to have a voice.
The wicked Arab
The American media have never been understanding of or slow to condemn the Arab or to stereotype him as bloodthirsty. So it is not surprising that the coverage of the bombing in Oklahoma City last week was flawed in those first awful hours by the constant use of the conjecture about probable guilt of "Islamic extremists." But much to their credit, the media soon took a calmer and calming approach.
In its first-day coverage CNN harped on the point that Oklahoma has become a center for Islamic extremist groups but never suggested that Islam is for the most part a peaceful and God-fearing religion. By failing to do so it virtually invited retribution against any Oklahoma Muslim or Arab-American. Most Americans have little concept of what Islam is all about. It is very easy to create a mental image of an Islam comprised of wildly irrational, suicidal terrorists who have no regard for their own life or any others.
Such reporting can lead to race hating and race baiting, such as occurred during the gulf war. Then, even though we were fighting with Islamic allies, thoughtless people villified Islam as an evil that needed to be stamped out. In major cities with large Muslim populations storekeepers were harassed and even firebombed. One of my students, a Malaysian Muslim who had the name Hussein, had to move from his apartment because of crank hate calls.
A day after the bombing tragedy the media began righting the picture. A Deseret News editorial, for example, warned against drawing "premature and unfair conclusions." A Ch. 5 package dealt with the fears of a Muslim family in Salt Lake City. And all media focused strongly on President Clinton's call to avoid stereotyping because the crime was not a matter of race or national origin, and on Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to categorize two presumed suspects as of "Mideast derivation" when the descriptions were uncertain.
Throwing out hate buzzwords thoughtlessly to a world audience through the massive press corps and their satellite city congregated at the bombing site could only compound the tragedy. That's a lesson the media seem to be learning.