On days when the president is coming, the White House press room, the East Room and even occasionally the Rose Garden are ornamented with dozens of objects that perform the decorative and utilitarian purpose of potted plants.
They are members of the prestigious White House press corps (a gaggle in which I also plied my craft for many years). These elite journalists are there ostensibly as key participants in a venerated institutional event: a presidential news conference. Much has changed over the years, as the White House sought to end the news-conference clamor of journalists vying to be called on next. But mostly, it has changed for the worst.
For starters, only a few correspondents have been pre-selected by the president’s advisers to ask questions of their boss. One by one, President Barack Obama calls the names of the chosen questioners from his advisers’ list. All the others on this famous news beat are pre-positioned to be seen but not heard.
That’s one big reason why the follow-up question — that crucial question-and-answer tool for informing the public — has all but gone the way of dinosaurs and running boards.
But perhaps the most flagrant ceding of journalistic influence in this institution has come from the journalists themselves.
Now, when almost every chosen correspondent recites a question, it is rarely just one question. Often it is hydra-headed, covering several unrelated topics. That’s self-defeating, because the reporter allows the president to pick and choose what to answer and what to avoid. The most famous journalists are often flagrant offenders. Their names don’t really matter; but what they fail to accomplish does.