On Wednesday, at President Obama’s news conference, a reporter asked a rude confrontational question. Oh the horror!
Lots of people – mostly Obama fans, plus some members of the press – are furious that Major Garrett of CBS News had the temerity to breach decorum. I disagree. I wish that kind of thing happened more often.
Presidential news conferences tend to be snooze conferences. The commander in chief has the intrinsic power advantage, and the Fourth Estate minions typically hew to their very best behavior. I’ll never forget the obsequious softball served up to President Bush, on the eve of his ’03 Iraq invasion, during a briefing when no reporters dared challenge the march to war. The question to Bush: “How is your faith guiding you?….What should America do collectively – should it be prayer?” To which Bush replied, “I appreciate that question a lot.” (I bet he did.)
Obama’s relations with the White House press corps are no better than his predecessors’. A recent report in the Columbia Journalism Review says “there is a gulf between the press and the head of state it’s charged with covering. (Obama’s) answers are long, leaving time for just a few questions from a press corps with already-limited access to the president. Actual news is almost never made….(T)he media most responsible for covering the president and his inner sanctum are given little insight into how decisions are made or who influences those decisions.”
So I can understand why someone, on some rare occasion, might try to shake things up. Which is what Garrett did Wednesday, when he challenged Obama’s spirited defense of the Iran nuclear deal. He asked this question:
“As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal – to leave the conscience of this nation and the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”
Obama initially responded with a spanking: “I gotta give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions – the notion that I’m ‘content’ as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails. Major, that’s nonsense and you should know better.”
OK, Garrett’s question wasn’t crafted particularly well. It was front-loaded with the outrageous assumption that Obama is “content” to leave those Americans in jail. Garrett was swiftly condemned on social media (isn’t everyone?), and scolded by some of his fellow media mainsteamers – like Dana Bash of CNN, who said: “You do want to be tough, but there’s a fine line, especially – maybe I’m old school – standing in the East Room, a fine line between asking a tough question and maybe crossing that line a little bit, and being disrespectful.”
I agree that the question was disrespectful. Heck, Garrett said later that he’s sometimes “an imperfect articulator.” Worse yet, the question wasn’t really a question at all; it was a mini-editorial disguised as a question.
But so what.
Presidents aren’t gods, and journalists – according to the old credo – are supposed to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Nobody is more comfortably cocooned than a president; he should be exposed to affliction every once in a while.
And there’s precedent for that. A string of presidents were exposed to Helen Thomas, who routinely front-loaded her questions. Random example: At a news conference in 2006, she asked George W. Bush: “Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?” (Liberals who are currently ticked off at Major Garrett never protested when Helen Thomas afflicted Bush.)
And it just so happens that Garrett’s Wednesday query, though rudely articulated, had a valid premise: OK, we have this nuclear deal, but what about the jailed Americans? How come they weren’t included in the negotiations?
And it just so happens that after Obama stopped admonishing Garrett, he gave a reasonable answer – a brief window into his thinking: “Now, if the question is, ‘why did we not tie the negotiations to their release,’ think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly Iran realizes, ‘You know what? Maybe we can get additional (nuclear) concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.'”
Moral of the story: Sometimes you have to be provocative to get a response. Or, as Garrett later put it, “Sometimes you have to take a scolding from a president to get an answer. That’s part of my job.”
I’ll buy that.
Factoid fun: The most entertaining president-press confrontation of all time occurred in 1974. Richard Nixon staged a news conference in front of a Texas audience. When Dan Rather of CBS News got up to ask a question, he triggered boos and cheers. Nixon called to him, “Are you running for something?” To which Rather – fully aware that Nixon had staged this event as part of a PR bid to save his Watergate-tainted preasidency – quickly retorted, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?”
Watch it. Nixon’s facial expression, post-retort, is priceless.