Hello, ladies! Obama’s press conference milestone

     President Barack Obama arrives for a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014.   (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais )

    President Barack Obama arrives for a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais )

    You’ve got to admit it was kind of cool last Friday when President Obama took press conference questions only from women.

    Obviously there were weightier events last week – like North Korea putting a movie in turnaround (that’s Hollywood lingo for “limbo”); America thawing relations with Cuba for the first time since ’61; Vladimir Putin feeling the full wrath of western economic sanctions, precisely as the Obama administration intended. But let’s forget the heavy stuff for one day. The press conference story was true grist for holiday cheer.

    For the first time in 100 years, ever since Woodrow Wilson created the format, the alpha guys of the press corps were skipped over. Obama cherry-picked eight questioners, all from the other gender. That might sound like a piece of random trivia, the equivalent of a baseball factoid (most career pinch-hit homers in Sunday road games, or whatever), but actually his gesture had symbolic weight.

    And it was quite deliberate. Press secretary Josh Earnest later said, “The fact is, there are many women from a variety of news organizations who day in and day out do the hard work of covering the president….We realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact.”

    Female journalists rightly enjoyed the moment. Jackie Calmes of The New York Times tweeted, “Women long chafed at dominance of front-row male TV reporters.” ABC News retiree Ann Compton tweeted, “Bush43 once called on only men. (Bush spokesman) Ari Fleischer defended saying those news orgzs failed to assign women to WH.”

    And Obama, at least for one day and however modestly, was also trying to redress an historic imbalance – because, for many generations, the White House press corps was a male chauvinist preserve. In 1900, according to records compiled back then by somebody known as the White House Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, there were 119 accredited “Newspaper Correspondents” and 17 “Lady Correspondents.” The ladies were consigned to covering the receptions and balls, presumably because lady readers were only interested in stories about receptions and balls.

    Decades later, the White House press corps looked like this. When FDR summoned the press to his office, the print corps looked like this. When JFK spoke from the Oval Office, the broadcast corps looked like this. No woman was accredited to cover a president until 1961. No women were allowed to attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner until 1962.  No women were accredited by the TV networks to cover the White House until Compton got the nod in 1974.

    In fact, until ’74, one of the only women in the White House corps was a Texan named Sarah McClendon. As recounted in The Boys on the Bus, a famous ’74 book about Washington journalism (note the “Boys” title), McClendon was viewed by her male colleagues as “comic relief….no matter what she asked, all the male reporters laughed,” and Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler “treated her as if she were a wino who had wandered in off the street.”

    So it’s nice that Obama singled out eight women. Indeed, as Time magazine pointed out, “Before the George H. W. Bush White House, it would have been hard to find eight women to ask questions (because) there weren’t that many on the beat.” Who could possibly find fault with what Obama did?

    Take a wild guess.

    On Fox News (bingo!), White House correspondent Ed Henry basically said that the girls are softies: “We got some tough questions into the president a few weeks ago, so they wanted to give some other people a chance, but frankly I think some of the questions just didn’t press him.”

    Yeah, if only those girls could be as tough as the Fox News guys who cover the White House. Take Jim Angle, for instance, the guy who covered George W. Bush. On the eve of the Iraq war in March ’03, he asked Bush a question that was so tough…so manly…oh dear, I stand corrected. Angle veritably polished Bush’s shoes: “(You’ve) wondered out loud why (antiwar protesters) don’t see Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace. I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat Saddam Hussein poses?”

    But back to Ed Henry. His grumblings prompted Fox host Gretchen Carlson to complain that “there was a lot of laughter going on in the press conference…you’ve got the Cuba situation and people are asking about what his New Year’s resolution was, for God’s sake.” (This is the bilge that routinely gets pumped into Fox viewers’ heads. Male reporters laugh all the time at press conferences – at everything from JFK’s wit to Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes’ AIDS jokes. And last Friday, the New Year’s resolution question was shouted by a man.)


    Actually, here’s what I liked best about Friday: I watched the entire press conference and didn’t realize what Obama had done until someone tweeted it later. Apparently, women are now so embedded in the White House press corps that they’ve become a given. I count that as progress.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal