Earlier this week, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter defended Obama’s interviews with Entertainment Tonight, People, and local media outlets, stating that they are just as important as the national news outlets and political media.
“Not more important, but equally important, and that is where a lot of Americans get their news,” Cutter said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Republicans, as well as many reporters in the White House press corps, have criticized Obama for doing puffy softball interviews with entertainment outlets, noting that he rarely conducted news conferences with the White House press corps, the last one being in March. The last time he had taken any questions from White House reporters was at the G20 summit in June. Perhaps in response to the criticism, Obama held an impromptu news conference with the White House press corps earlier this week.
It is true that the President should hold more frequent White House Press Corps news conferences to face tough questions. It would be a good idea if every president held a news conference once a month.
However, nowadays a president or any political leader needs to expand their media presence in order to reach more people, especially during a political campaign.
The nature of how people get their news and entertainment has changed drastically in the last 30 or so years. Back in the day, people could only tune into three national TV networks and only read their local newspaper and the New York Times. Today, the only culturally unifying news and entertainment events are the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and major breaking news stories and tragedies, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Due to this fragmented media, it makes sense for a president or any political leaders or candidates to make themselves available to as many different media outlets as possible to reach different audiences.
Let’s face it, most people don’t have time or the interest in being news and political junkies. It’s not that people are stupid, it’s just that they’re preoccupied with living their lives and trying to make ends meet. Many Americans could name all Three Stooges, one of the seven dwarfs, the starting quarterback for the New York Giants, Snooki’s television show, an American Idol winner, or all of the Kardashians, but they can’t name a Supreme Court Justice. A recent FindLaw.com survey revealed that 66 percent of Americans couldn’t name one Supreme Court justice and that only one percent could name all nine justices. It’s sad to say, but many people get their news from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. President Clinton may have been the first president to tap into these interviews by alternative media by appearing on Arsenio Hall and MTV, but it made sense when others followed.
Although during his presidency President Obama has appeared on The View, ESPN, Jay Leno, Rolling Stone, Facebook, YouTube, and other nontraditional outlets, he has also been interviewed by more traditional media outlets and journalists, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, 60 Minutes, Bob Woodward, Barbara Walters, the BBC, Bill O’Reilly, George Stephanopoulos, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Michael Smerconish, Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, Robin Roberts, and Charlie Rose. These were serious interviews where he faced tough questions. He’ll be interviewed by CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin as part of a documentary that will run the night before the Democratic National Convention begins.
A few days ago, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs noted in a television interview that Obama had recently done 11 radio and 13 local television interviews and five roundtable discussions with 15 print journalists. Gibbs told Fox News Sunday, “The White House press corps have good questions but so do local TV stations in Iowa, Colorado and Ohio … . The notion that this president isn’t doing interviews is ridiculous.” For instance, this week, Obama did interviews with local TV news anchors from markets in two battleground states: Jacksonville, Florida and Norfolk, Virginia, as well as the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. According to CBS News’s Mark Knoller, Obama gave interviews to 35 media outlets in July.
Speaking with the local media in swing states makes sense to reach those local voters and to address local issues that they care about. In 2008, candidate Obama was interviewed by Mike Morsch, executive director of Montgomery Newspapers in suburban Philadelphia. Since Obama wants to court women voters, it makes sense to go on The View or do an interview with People.
Also, it’s nothing new for presidents to avoid press conferences. According to a May 2010 Fox News article, President Obama had held four prime-time news conferences in the first 485 days of his term, which equaled the total number that his three predecessors, combined, had held by the same point in their first terms. Each Bush had held one, while Clinton had held two. During that same time period, Obama had answered reporters’ questions on 280 occasions, compared to 275 for George W. Bush and 198 for George H.W. Bush. At one point, President George W. Bush had a gap of 204 days between press conferences.
There are so many media outlets today that no president or politician can please everyone. President Obama has been doing an appropriate mix of traditional and nontraditional media interviews. Some people long for the days of JFK’s press conferences or Reagan’s exchanges with Sam Donaldson, but there’s nothing wrong with a 21st-century president using 21st-century media.
Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.