When it comes to going up to bat against questions from the news media, the only pitches President Obama likes to see are softballs.
And for the most part, that’s all he gets, largely because of his careful selection of media pitchers and their willingness to play the game. He loves to do interviews with soft throwers from ESPN, People Magazine and “Entertainment Tonight,” which he did recently, but not so much from hard-news hurlers such as The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, the nation’s two largest newspapers.
Obama as president has never done a sit-down interview with The Journal. He last did one with USA Today in December 2009, some 32 months ago.
Yet, on Monday, he did interviews from the White House with local TV anchors in Jacksonville, Fla., Norfolk, Va. and San Diego.
And when he does interviews with the big TV networks, he routinely seeks to pick the times, the dates, the topics and even the interviewers. And more often than not, he succeeds. For example, he granted an interview to NBC’s Matt Lauer that aired just before the Super Bowl last February (NBC broadcast the Super Bowl this year). It was no surprise that he chose that venue. The Super Bowl draws around 100 million viewers, the largest TV audience of the year. What was the big news off that interview? Obama said he deserves a second term.
And Obama chose to be interviewed last May by ABC’s “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts when he announced he was supporting same-sex marriage. There has been speculation that Roberts is gay, but she has never confirmed or denied it.
Other favorite Obama interview venues include CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” ABC’s “The View” and NBC’s “Today.” He has also fielded carefully screened questions in town hall meetings on Facebook, Twitter, MTV and YouTube.
Obama in 2008 promised the most-transparent White House in history, and continues to perpetuate that myth by claiming it to be a fact. But he presides over one of the most thickly insulated and battened-down White Houses in recent memory.
Not only do his designated spokespersons give out little more than the blandly crafted message or talking points of the day, but the president himself also chooses to avoid situations where he is likely to encounter tough questions from reporters. Outside the White House, his press pool is generally kept so far away that members can rarely even shout questions to him.
Perhaps in response to recent news articles calling attention to the fact that he tries to avoid tough questions from hard-news reporters, Obama held a surprise press conference on Monday. Until then, he had not taken questions from the White House press corps since June 8, nearly 2 ½ months ago, when he took just three questions. Two of them were softballs on the European economy. The other was a high, hard one that asked about alleged national security leaks emanating from the White House. After calling the leaks allegation “offensive,’’ he hightailed it out, taking no more questions.
Obama’s next direct encounter with the White House press corps came about a week later when he stepped into the sunny Rose Garden to announce that he was lifting deportation orders for some young illegal immigrants. While the president was speaking, a reporter from The Daily Caller, a conservative news Website, interrupted with a question. Visibly angered, the president said he would take questions after he was finished. But at the end of his remarks, he turned and walked away, leaving shouted questions by reporters hanging in the air.
The press corps, which should have been offended for being shut out, instead directed fire at the Daily Caller reporter for being rude.
Obama fielded questions from the press for 22 minutes on Monday. As he entered the briefing room he made note of his prolonged absence from the podium, saying, “Jay (Press Secretary Jay Carney) tells me that you guys have been missing me. So I thought I’d come by and just say hello.” But given the opportunity to hurl some fastballs, the reporters’ questions were mostly softballs, enabling Obama to knock many of them out of the park. Here’s a look at several of them:
• Do you think views on rape expressed by a Missouri congressman represent the views of the Republican Party? “Rape is rape.”
• Are you comfortable with the tone of your campaign? “I feel very comfortable with the fact that when you look at the campaign we're running we're focused on the issues and the differences that matter to working families all across America.”
• Do you think there's something Mitt Romney is not telling us in his tax returns that indicates he's not playing by the same rules? “For us to say that it makes sense to release your tax returns, as I did, as John McCain did, as Bill Clinton did, as the two President Bushes did, I don't think is in any way out of bounds.”
The only two tough questions came on subjects the president rarely talks about – Afghanistan and Syria. His responses there were hardly headline grabbing. But at least he was forced to go on the record.
On Sunday, Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manger, defended the president’s heavy use of entertainment media over harder-news outlets.
"I don’t think that they're more important, but I think that they're equally important," she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” "I think that's where a lot of Americans get their news."
If so, a lot of Americans are only getting the president’s side of the story. And that’s the way he wants it.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.