White House Correspondents — Past and Present — on Questioning the President

Posted: 22 February 2009 by Editors in Political Science
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Helen Thomas, Sam Donaldson, and Dan Rather on the responsibility of the press to question the president, the current administrations efforts to control the Newspeak, and the questions the press need to ask themselves.

EXCERPTS from The Washington Post – “Questioning the President” –22 Feb 09:

Helen Thomas, columnist for Hearst newspapers; reporter for UPI for 57 years:

As a White House correspondent for UPI for many years, I rotated with my Associated Press competitor for the first two questions at presidential news conferences, and I considered myself lucky for not having to shout for attention. Now I am not sure I will be called on, and that is frustrating.

I wonder at the fairness of White House officials deciding who should get called on. Regulars who show up every day to cover the president should get priority over reporters who come in only when a news conference is scheduled.

Every reporter hopes for the privilege of asking the president a question. None of us wants to be a prop. We also want to be permitted follow-ups, and it is wrong for a president to deny them, especially when he makes a faulty statement. Reporters contribute more if they are on their toes.

I preferred the days when we had pandemonium and were not quietly hoping to pose a question to the world’s most powerful person. Presidents should be questioned early and often. You can’t have a democracy otherwise.

Sam Donaldson, co-host of ABC News’s “Politics Live”:

I’m told that when President Obama meets journalists, the lucky reporters are often told in advance that they will have the chance to ask a question. Is the message to “think carefully about what you ask,” or, as Goldfinger put it to Agent 007 when he lay strapped to the laser table, “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond, it may be your last”?

The White House reporters I see today are professional; they know their job is to try to find out what a president is doing or intends to do for the public and to get his answers to his critics’ complaints. Those reporters know they are not there to either build up or tear down a president (by his actions and policies he will do that) or to win a popularity contest. The questions they ask must never be rude but must always be challenging. I know some people thought I was sometimes too aggressive in my questioning, but I always knew which one of us was the president of the United States and which one wasn’t.

Every president tries to “handle the press.” At the end of the day he’ll only do that as well as he handles his job. When people tell me how brilliantly President Obama and his people are handling the press, I just smile. Wait awhile.

Dan Rather, host and managing editor of HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports”; CBS reporter for 44 years:

How a first-term president handles things such as news conferences will evolve over time.

We, press and public alike, might focus on what we can do to make these events meaningful. A few questions we might ask ourselves:

Do the reporters who are called upon ask tough questions? Do they ask the necessary follow-up questions? If these questions go unanswered, will reporters show some solidarity of purpose by following up on others’ questions — even it means discarding their own prepared questions? And do members of the White House press corps behave as if they understand themselves to be asking a question of a fellow citizen, for their fellow citizens — with respect for the office of the presidency and without a deference unbecoming a free people?

Will the public, if it perceives that certain news organizations or reporters are being favored or shut out, use its First Amendment rights to demand that the president call on a broader list? Will the public insist on frequent and regular news conferences? And will the people show their understanding of and support for a White House press corps that is not afraid to ask the president tough questions? Conversely, will they hold journalists accountable for softball questions or non-answers that go unchallenged?

In my experience — and I have been among those jockeying to ask questions at presidential news conferences — presidents will do whatever they can to gain control over their message. It is up to citizens and journalists to exercise our rights and do all in our power to hold presidents, including this one, accountable. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

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