Observers couldn’t help but notice the irony: President Barack Obama on Monday signed the Press Freedom Act, then refused to take any questions from members of the press.
In a broader sense, the event was another demonstration of Obama’s standoffish relationship with the news media — despite his campaign vow of a “transparent” administration.
Obama has not fielded questions at a full-blown press conference since way back on July 22, 2009.
President George H.W. Bush had nearly three press conferences a month. Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson convened an average of about two a month, Ronald Reagan had less than one press conference every two months, and Richard Nixon averaged one every seven weeks.
Obama lags behind both Nixon and Reagan: He called five press conferences during his first six months in office, and none in the 10 months that followed, the Huffington Post reported.
As for less formal short exchanges with reporters, Obama has had 47, compared with 147 for George W. Bush in his first year and 252 for Clinton, according to figures compiled by professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University in Towson, Md.
Reporters were on hand in the Oval Office when Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Act, which expands the State Department’s annual human rights reports to include a description of press freedoms in each country.
The bill is named after the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter terrorists beheaded in February 2002.
After Obama signed the bill, Chip Reid of CBS News asked the president if he still has confidence in BP in the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama ignored the question. Reid then said: “In the interest of press freedom, would you take a couple questions on BP?”
Reid reported: “He told me I was free to ask questions. Someone else shouted, ‘Will you answer them?’ He said he’s not holding a press conference today as we were escorted out the door.”
There have been other recent instances of Obama’s reluctance to speak with the press:
• On May 4, Obama refused to field any questions from reporters in the Rose Garden after delivering an angry statement regarding the oil spill.
• On May 12, Obama had a joint “press conference” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but reporters were allowed to ask only four questions — two each for the U.S. and foreign press corps. Fox News reported that, “for the White House press corps, it might seem more of a tease than a meaty Q&A.”
• On Wednesday, Obama held a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon but said there was time for only one question from the White House press corps and one from foreign reporters.
“And in what I suspect was a White House effort to assure that the questioning was limited to immigration and other issues of U.S.-Mexico concern, he called on the Univision reporter from the U.S. side,” CBS’ Reid noted.
“So if his goal was to avoid answering any tough questions about yesterday’s elections, or the oil spill, or financial regulation, or Iran, or Afghanistan — he succeeded.”
Then as Obama and Calderon began to walk back to the Oval Office, Reid said he shouted: “Do you have any plans for a REAL press conference?” Obama did not respond.
Obama’s orchestration of the so-called “press conferences” can be seen as one element of the administration’s efforts to manipulate the press. The White House refused to grant interviews to Fox News and tried to limit its access because the network often criticized the administration. Obama also has attacked conservative talk radio.
Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported that, when ABC, NBC, and CBS balked at airing Obama’s July 2009 news conference in prime time, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called the heads of the parent companies of all three networks and pressured them to air the event.
“There’s a reason Emanuel went over the heads of the programming execs: The programming execs recognize that each time Obama rips out the heart of a weekday primetime lineup, he costs them revenue,” Ben Shapiro observed at townhall.com.
“The White House has to use the covert threat of a cutoff in White House access for networks that refuse to play ball. The alphabet networks all know that the Obama White House has largely frozen Fox’s access to administration officials. They know that Obama grants his friends access while cutting off his enemies. This endangers the independence of the press in a catastrophic way . . .
“With Obama openly pressuring the networks to accede to its requests or face a reportorial cutoff, we are witnessing the hijacking of the First Amendment in toto.”
Thanks to the White House’s manipulation of the news media, Obama has not had to answer hard questions about a wide range of recent issues.
But the press should not have been surprised by Obama’s secretiveness.
During the campaign, he refused or declined to release many personal documents that most candidates do automatically. Such papers included his records as an Illinois state legislator and his transcripts from Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Universities.
Obama promised to be the most transparent president in history, but the promise appears “just words.”
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