President Barack Obama held a rare news conference with White House reporters Monday, but it's unlikely to ease the growing tension between him and the correspondents who cover him full-time and have been complaining about lack of access.
That's because the news conference lasted only 20 minutes, in contrast to the traditional hour, and he only called on four reporters, leaving most of the press corps to stew in silence.
Before's Monday surprise appearance, during which he talked about a variety of topics including Afghanistan and the controversial comments about rape made by a Republican candidate Missouri Senate, Obama had failed to hold a full-fledged news conference in two months. But he had granted interviews to local news media and entertainment media outlets, a pattern that White House and campaign officals say won't change.
More of those local interviews were scheduled for Monday, when the president was to met with television anchors from Jacksonville, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, Calfornia, and the Virginian-Pilot newswpaper, according to White House officials.
This access has become a sore point among White House correspondents, who argue Obama doesn't give them their due by taking their questions with more regularity. Among those who have complained about lack of access are correspondents Chuck Todd of NBC and Jake Tapper of ABC.
But White House officials point out that communicating through the White House press corps is only one of many options that a president has to address the country's concerns. Noting that Obama campaigned extensively in Iowa last week, Stephanie Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, told CNN, "The president was talking to reporters in the ground in Iowa. Do you think that's less important than talking to somebody like you?" Cutter added: "Iowa is a critical state. We're going to spend our time talking to media all over the country."
She was asked if entertainment- and lifestyle-oriented media are more important than national news media, and Cutter said, "I don't think they're more important but I think that they're equally important. I think that's where a lot of Americans get the news."
As of Sunday, Obama this month had done 13 local TV interviews, 11 radio interviews, and five roundtable interviews with 15 journalists, according to Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary for Obama and now one of his senior campaign advisers. Gibbs spoke to Fox News.
And Obama has told friends that the media "regulars" are preoccupied with insider trivia and playing "gotcha" to catch him in a mistake, so he is not eager to take their questions.
White House officials have a point when they argue that Obama has held many more interviews than his predecessors, even if they are not with the most serious news organizations. He recently gave interviews to People Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and a handful of other entertainment media including a comedy-oriented local radio show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In July, he gave interviews to a total of 35 media outlets, an unusually high number, according to an analysis by CBS News's Mark Knoller.
Hoping to stir the pot, the Republican National Committee has been needling the White House press corps over its lack of access. In an email to reporters, the RNC said, "Hey, White House press corps. This had got to burn." Then the RNC proceeded to list frivolous or light-hearted questions asked in recent interviews with entertainment outlets while, as the RNC pointed out, Obama "ducked" the White House regulars. Among those questions: "If you had a super power, what would it be?" "What's your favorite song to work out to?" "Red or green (chili)?" "What's your favorite New Mexican food?"
Obama last held a news conference, though a very limited one, with the White House press corps during the G20 summit in Chicago in June. His last formal White House news conference was March 6.
More broadly, the reporters who regularly cover Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney have also complained about lack of access to him.
Tensions between journalists and presidents or would-be presidents are as old as the country itself. As I pointed out in my book, Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press, even George Washington got upset with coverage in the newspapers of his time. From the media side, I have heard many of these same complaints about access over the years as a White House correspondent and during my term as president of the White House Correspondents' Association.
It's true that the White House press corps is never satisfied with the level of access it gets. It always wants more, and flareups such as the current one between Obama and the correspondents are inevitable.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "THe Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
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UPDATE: 08/20/12: 5:42 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect the president's afternoon news conference.