One of the great pleasures of journalism is the opportunity to have a front-row seat at the circus—but reporters who attain that in Washington often find the daily circus a bore.
That’s the New Republic’s take on White House press briefings, which former White House Assistant Press Secretary Reid Cherlin in an Aug. 5 article called “an unholy charade” filled with “ritual evasions by the administration’s mouthpiece.” He labeled them “exercises in silliness … a worthless chore for reporters, an embarrassing nuisance to administration staff.”
Cherlin gave big and little examples from current Press Secretary Jay Carney’s briefing, ranging from questions about Egyptian politics to trivia (“About the congressional picnic that has been postponed, what was behind that?”). Cherlin proposed getting rid of the televised press secretary briefings and returning to the informal, non-televised exchanges between reporters and press secretaries decades ago that sometimes provided insight, as well as “having the president himself spar directly with the press more frequently.”
I doubt if that would improve the flow of information or insights, but Cherlin did hit upon a magic word: “spar.” Sparring in boxing is not throwing one weak punch and maybe following it up with one more. It’s not even throwing two strong punches. It’s going at for several minutes, with many punches thrown and parried.
White House press conferences never include such sparring—and if they did, voters would probably take issue with journalists for coming at the president as an equal, and thus exhibiting disrespect. One time that happened was when Dan Rather decades ago threw a cheeky follow-up at President Richard Nixon. Rather received rampant criticism for that, and survived because the press corps so despised Nixon.
The solution today is to learn from the Brits. If you’ve never watched the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, take a look: It airs Wednesday mornings at 7 a.m. ET on C-SPAN2 and re-airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on C-SPAN. Here, England’s political leaders do spar, and often delightfully so. If we had President’s Questions once a week in the House of Representatives chamber, Barack Obama and his successors would have to hit hardball pitches rather than softball lobs.
The nation would be better informed, and journalists could be journalists, reporting and analyzing, rather than courtiers or, at best, court jesters.