Obama Meets the Press -- on His Terms
His political opponents—and even some allies—consider President Obama to be aloof, insular, and unreceptive to criticism. Media critics chaff at his administration’s many attempts to control access to the president, circumvent reporters, and chastise journalists and news outlets they deem to be unfriendly.
Those may be valid critiques. Yet it is an undeniable historic fact that no president of the United States has conducted as many interviews as Barack Obama. Not even close. Later this year, he may surpass 1,000 interviews given during his first seven years in office.
At the end of Obama’s sixth year he had given 872 interviews to a broad range of reporters, columnists, bloggers, radio hosts, local television anchors, and others reporting news on a wide scope of issues the president wanted to weigh in on. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined had only 572 interviews at their six-year marks. Obama’s emphasis on interchanges with the press through interviews represents a change from the practices of the presidents who preceded him.
Those previous exchanges took place in press conferences and short question-and-answer sessions with White House reporters assigned to cover them and their administrations. The shift to interviews away from White House-centered queries has come about through the opportunities Obama and his White House staff now have to target the segments of the public they want to reach at a particular time. It is a move White House reporters view as consequential for their reporting on the presidency and for what the public knows about the chief executive.
Interviews: The View From the White House
The short answer to the question of why the president does so many interviews is two-fold. First is the opportunity to reach hundreds of millions of people while simultaneously targeting particular audiences about the issues he wants to discuss. Second, the White House sets the rules and chooses whom the president talks to.
Today’s fragmented media environment allows the president and his communications team to target audiences in ways earlier presidents did not and could not do. The traditional 20th century three-network, three-news-magazine, and big-city/small-city newspaper model has declined sharply, except for television. The Pew Research Center reported in its “State of the News Media 2015” that weekday newspaper circulation has fallen 19 percent since 2004.
Local and network television news has grown in the last two years. But it has been supplanted by a new network of media that people access when and where they want, from television to their iPads, computers, and smartphones. No longer do they need to be at a particular place and time to tune into their president. The White House has adopted its media strategy to reflect this new reality.
While traditionally presidents relied on speeches to gather an audience, that is no longer the case. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained to me: “If you are making the decision strategically, then you can get a much larger audience for the information that you're trying to communicate through the use of a strategically chosen interview than you would from a more standard event.”
Added White House Communications Director Jen Psaki: “Sometimes it's about reaching an audience that may not read a speech or watch a speech and may not be subscribing to traditional daily newspapers.”
A Pew Research Center survey demonstrates just how many people do not get their news from traditional sources—and how much they differ by age group. Sixty-one percent of millennials (ages 18-33) get their news each week on Facebook, while 60 percent of baby boomers (50-68) get theirs from local television. The Gen Xers, who fall between those two groups, are almost split evenly.
This is the environment the Obama White House works amid when communicating with the public, and it shapes their priorities. From Jan. 20 through June 30, 2015, President Obama gave 59 interviews. Nine of those were with online organizations and 14 were with local television. While local television has been important for interviews from the start of the administration, online presidential interviews have increased as social media have developed during the Obama years, particularly in 2015.
While the public may be divided on its news sources, social media provide an opportunity to open up new pathways to people interested in particular issues even if their overall interest in politics is low.
Given the many platforms that exist, targeted interviews are a contemporary way for the president to reach even more people worldwide than a Super Bowl’s audience of 115 million viewers while at the same time locking in on a specific audience. An example of such an interview is one President Obama did on May 8 with Matt Bai of Yahoo News about Trade Promotion Authority legislation and the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. The combined audience of people who came across the interview on social media networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google +, was stunning.
According to a metric called “social impressions,” users of those sites came across the interview some 200 million times. Many of those users were people who saw it on various platforms, but one metric cited by Yahoo underscores how effective the White House was: Yahoo has an autoplay feature that aired a snippet of the interview for those using its site. It stopped offering it after a while, but 1.4 million people loaded the page themselves.
That is what the White House wants: to have the president make the case for his initiatives to a huge audience interested in the subject.
The conversation between Bai and Obama lasted 18 minutes, with the president making his case for the trade legislation and responding to points raised by his interviewer, including criticisms made by Democrats who opposed the legislation, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Obama responded sharply to Warren’s criticism, noting that she “is a politician like everyone else” and asserting that she was “absolutely wrong” in her interpretation of the trade bills.
From the White House’s point of view, all of those elements were key when considering the interview. As a national political columnist for Yahoo News, Bai was the White House’s choice to do a trade interview because he had an audience that included people who opposed the TPP deal.* That was a group White House staff wanted to reach.
From Bai’s perspective, the interview met his goals as well. He is interested in trade and wanted the interview to “explain something complicated to readers, both in the video and what I can do” in his Yahoo column.
Interviews are structured to be suitable for the president’s purposes. Obama can talk about subjects that interest him in a setting and manner of his choosing with journalists selected by his aides. At the same time, reporters conducting the interviews can ask whatever questions they want on the agreed-upon topic: They do not clear their questions with the White House. Thus, these interviews offer a win for both the administration and news organizations selected to conduct them.
White House reporters, however, prefer press conferences and short question-and-answer sessions as venues to get presidential responses. “The White House can package information in many ways – speeches, interviews,” says Michael Shear, White House correspondent for the New York Times. “[But] any time we can pose a question in a way that doesn’t have a prepackaged answer is a good thing.”
There are patterns to the interviews the president does, which can range from long-form exchanges with large audiences, such as on “60 Minutes,” to brief five-minute sessions with local audiences in mind, where the president is pitching a particular idea or program. Each has its benefits for the parties involved.
Large Audience Interviews
Beginning in 2009 and every year since, Obama has had an interview with a journalist from the network carrying the Super Bowl. The reasoning is obvious, though the calculation is not without its tradeoffs. In return for a worldwide audience in excess of 100 million, the president sat for a sometimes testy 2014 session with Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. That wouldn’t have been his first choice, but Fox was carrying the game. In 2015, his luck was better: the 17-minute interview was conducted by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
Eight of the dozen “60 Minutes” interviews Obama has done as president took place during football season, when viewership is particularly high. The White House can expect an audience of 10 million to 15 million, depending on the occasion. Besides the large number of viewers, Josh Earnest explained another advantage: “It's not just a sound bite of an interview that they're getting, but they're getting, depending on the interview, 20 or 30 minutes of the president engaging in a conversation,” he told me. “It is the president talking in paragraphs that you can get on ‘60 Minutes’ and there aren't a lot of other places where you can get that.”
Providing long answers is clearly an indulgence Obama relishes. In an April press conference, for example, he answered a question about the Baltimore riots with a 1,909-word answer. This propensity to talk at length works better in an interview where the questioner can dig into the multi-part answers he has. The same opportunity does not exist in short question-and-answer sessions.
Journalists with large audiences—or influential ones—include print people too, particularly opinion writers. One of the columnists the president has had extended conversations with is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. “The thing that's unique about Tom is that we know that he's got a following,” says Earnest. “He's got a good audience. We know it will get a lot of attention. … We also know the president can have a conversation where it won't get parsed by sound bite.”
Another long interview in the last three months where the president dealt with a complex policy issue was one he did with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. That interview “is one of the most eye-opening about the president’s thought process regarding the Middle East,” one veteran White House reporter told me on background. “I looked back over some past press conferences and they just didn’t elicit the same thoughtful response with an opportunity for a thoughtful challenge.”
Specialty and Online Interviews
Niche-market or online interviews allow the president to get to specific audiences to meet a current need, such as encouraging voters to go to the polls or asking young people to sign up for health care coverage.
The president regularly does specialty interviews with African-American and Latino radio and television hosts. Those are issue-specific interviews designed for get-out-the-vote pleas as well as to address issues in the news, such as the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. These sessions are easy for the president to do. In 2010, Obama did 23 of them in the week prior to the midterm elections, 21 by telephone from the Oval Office with specialty radio. In December 2014, when he sought to explain his executive actions on immigration, he included television interviews with Jose Diaz-Balart on Telemundo and Jorge Ramos on Univision.
Off-the-Record Interviews With Columnists
The least visible interviews that the president grants are these, which he has conducted since early in his first term.
This is an old model, with a new wrinkle, as former White House communications Director Dan Pfeiffer explained in 2009: “Columnists are actually pretty influential still,” he said. “They're syndicated, so they end up in lots of places [and] they are on TV a lot, which is a huge advantage. If you're going to pick a columnist, you're going to do Eugene Robinson or David Broder in this day and age. Eugene Robinson is a much better person to do because Eugene Robinson has a deal with MSNBC and he's on several times a week.”
April Ryan, who covers the White House for American Urban Radio Networks, has engaged in such sessions with Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. “I love it because these are moments you can talk as people,” she said. “They get to know who you are.”
Local Television Anchors
Since the early days of the administration, local television anchors have been invited to interview the president on a policy topic related to their viewership.
The press office has set up a template for how these interviews work. In June, when trade legislation was a timely issue, five anchors from TV stations in Dallas and El Paso, Tex., Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., were invited to the White House to interview the president. The markets were picked strategically: Each featured a Democrat in the House of Representatives who was uncommitted on trade legislation.
Previous presidents have given interviews to local TV stations, often in preparation for a trip to those areas. In Obama’s White House, this is a very methodical process.
Before the anchors met with the president, they were briefed in the Roosevelt Room with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, administrator of the Small Business Administration Maria Contreras-Sweet, and director of the National Economic Council Jeffrey Zients. Following the briefing, they conducted a round robin series of interviews in the East Wing Reception Room with the three officials.
“They were very well informed on Texas generally and on Dallas,” noted Karen Borta, an anchorwoman from the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate. “Our viewers [had] been Tweeting and Facebooking why is the treaty so hush-hush, so we were asking those questions.”
Borta’s subsequent piece featured parts of the Obama conversation as well as interviews with a Dallas businessman with a global operation who would benefit from the trade deal and a labor leader who opposed it. Altogether her interview with the president was the standard five minutes given to local anchors, but that short snippet of the president’s time resulted in several days of local publicity on the chosen issue, beginning with the station’s announcement that its anchor was going to the White House.
The Value of Impromptu Q&A Sessions
President Obama and his aides are relatively pleased with how they have managed to impart their messages to audiences on their own terms. Niche publications, national columnists, and friendly online journalists lucky enough to have landed personal interviews have found the approach to their liking as well. The same sense of satisfaction is not shared by the men and women of the White House press corps, however.
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton often met with beat reporters, particularly for brief Q&A sessions. In his first six years in office, Bush held 581 such interactions (427 of them short Q&As and 154 press conferences). Clinton was even more prolific: He conducted 989 such events (822 Q&As; 167 press conferences). Obama’s total for the two types of sessions is only 274 (152 Q&As; 122 press conferences). Interviews are where he spent the bulk of his time. But the White House press corps wants to see the two traditional types of access restored, not as a substitute for interviews but as a necessary part of the regular interchanges between the president and reporters.
Is there a difference in the kind of information that a president provides in an interview as opposed to a query posed during a press conference or short question-and-answer session? The reporters who cover the president certainly believe so. “The president can wake up on Monday and know that he is not going to have an unscripted, uncontrolled interaction with a reporter all week,” notes Michael Shear. “He might have interviews, but those are much more controlled settings.”
Clinton’s 822 short Q&As provided the public with a continuing portrait of what he was doing as president. Except during the Monica Lewinsky episode, whether regarding policy, events, or his actions, reporters could easily entice Clinton to respond to their queries. When the rough weather set in for Clinton in 1998, people knew he worked hard at his job because they had seen and heard him talk about his work almost every day since January 1993.
Reporters want to question the president in settings where he is responding to unfolding events. “They are often the best chance you have to ask about the issue of the moment,” commented Colleen McCain Nelson, White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. “Often if you wait until he has a press conference, weeks have played out and so you don’t have an immediate response to what’s happening in the world that moment. Instead … you ask him about an immigration court decision that happened weeks ago because you haven’t had a chance to ask it.”
While recent presidents have given an average of 500 speeches a year, the kinds of information reporters are seeking goes beyond what a president says in such addresses. A speech is going to be about a policy, not what alternatives the president and his administration considered in arriving at the policy. The speech won’t look at what possibilities there are for congressional approval and what groups and individuals support the proposal. That is where reporters’ queries come in. Those interested in presidential policy want answers to the questions reporters will ask, not just what the president wants to say about it.
Does a president profit from avoiding the traditional exchanges with the White House press corps? The correspondents themselves see both sides to that question. One reporter noted the president and his staff have avoided mistakes they otherwise might have made.
“By picking their spots, by acting very strategically on interviews, they haven’t had to clean up a lot of messes,” this journalist said. But have they missed opportunities to have the president make his own case? Colleen Nelson thinks so. Without the president’s voice, she says, “the public lacks an understanding of how he is thinking about issues. Why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Often the president is his own best advocate, she added, “so it is a chance for the public to understand why he is making a decision, why he is pushing ahead with a proposal.” That is what’s being lost.
Increasing Opportunities for Reporters to Question the President
As Obama was leaving an East Room joint press conference with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, a reporter asked: “Another press conference?”
“I love press conferences,” Obama quipped. “It’s my press team that’s always holding me back. I want to talk to you guys every day.”
When the laughter died down, he added: “Sorry, Josh.”
What Obama was implying is that it’s a presidential press secretary’s role to facilitate more meetings with the press—even if presidents themselves resist it. To some degree, that dynamic is present in in every administration. Staff makes a difference, as some are more successful than others in making the argument for presidents to meet with reporters. In tabulating the number of opportunities White House reporters have had under Obama’s three press secretaries, we see a distinct difference.
At the beginning of his administration — a time when all presidents are willing to talk to the press to tell them of their appointments and plans — Obama had an average of one short Q&A session every 10 days. Two years later when Jay Carney replaced Robert Gibbs, the frequency of those sessions fell to one every 21 days. During Josh Earnest’s tenure (through the end of May), the president had a short Q&A every 11 days. Leaving aside the irony that Carney was a former reporter, it reveals the underlying truth to Obama’s quip. Staff matters. At the same time, it’s the president who hires the White House staff.
*This sentence was updated to more accurately describe Matt Bai’s duties and title.