I'm not sure how many thousands of questions have been asked over the years at White House press briefings, but I would suggest NBC's Chuck Todd may have recently asked one of the most inane.
The history-making moment unfolded in the White House press room on January 23, when the topic open for questioning was President Obama's proposed economic stimulus package and whether the administration, which was hoping for a bipartisan effort on the legislation, would be disappointed if the bill passed with little Republican support. And that's when Todd asked if Obama would veto his own bill if it didn't garner enough Republican votes.
It's hard to imagine that a reporter for an elite news outlet, operating at the pinnacle of his profession as a White House correspondent, would ever ask that question; would ask if a president would take the step of vetoing his own legislation because not enough politicians from the opposition party had voted in favor of it.
It's only March and already Todd has uncorked two monumentally dumb questions on TV. Let's hope he doesn't go for the trifecta any time soon.
Earlier this week, former Laura Bush press secretary Andrew Malcolm used his Los Angeles Times blog to play up tax troubles of various Democrats. Malcolm's hook was a homestead exemption claimed by California congressman Pete Stark on a home he owns in Maryland; his post was titled "So does Democrat Pete Stark represent California or Maryland?"
Malcolm's focus wasn't the local angle, it was Stark's party affiliation, and Malcolm went out of his way to stress the number of Democrats who have had recent tax controversies. Here's Malcolm (bold added):
So does Democrat Pete Stark represent California or Maryland?
Oh-oh, looks like more tax troubles for another Democrat in Washington.
California's Rep. Pete Stark, a senior House Democrat who helps write the nation's tax laws, has been claiming a $1.7 million Maryland home as his principal residence in recent years, although he represents the Golden State's 13th District on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
Now in his 19th congressional term, the liberal Democrat and one of several Californians in House leadership under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, confirmed that he and his wife Deborah are indeed not registered to vote in Maryland.
He is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Although much recent congressional attention has focused on corporate bonuses in New York, taxes seem to be the problem de la saison for Washington Democrats this winter.
Timothy Geithner had to pay thousands in back taxes before his confirmation as President Obama's secretary of the Treasury. Ex-Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name as secretary of Health and Human Services after revelations that he had paid $140,000 in back taxes and penalties on unreported benefits.
Nancy Kelleher, who was to be chief performance review officer for the new administration, also withdrew her name over a back-tax issue.
Another California Democrat, Rep. Hilda Solis, was confirmed as Obama's secretary of Labor when her husband paid up some 16 years of back local tax liens.
Earlier this month another Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, had his similar Maryland state tax disallowed by officials for the same reasons, his home there not really being his principal residence.
Seems it was pretty important to Andrew Malcolm that you understand that Democrats have been involved in tax controversies.
So when Roll Call reported this morning that four House Republicans have been receiving the Washington, DC homestead tax exemption, I figured Malcolm would be all over it. After all, his interest in the Stark story clearly wasn't that Stark is from California; that wasn't his focus nearly as much as Stark's party affiliation.
The Roll Call report was given wider attention by Politico, and by The Frontrunner, but Andrew Malcolm has ignored it.
Now, why would Laura Bush's former press secretary Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm so eagerly tout a story about a Democratic congressman claiming a homestead exemption in Maryland while ignoring a story about four Republican congressmen claiming homestead exemptions in DC?
Politico editor and co-founder John Harris muses about his publication's role and future in CJR. Unless I'm missing something, there are a couple of concepts he pretty much ignores: focusing on what's important, and getting the story right.
There is, however, a lot about "driving the conversation" and "building franchises" and appealing to advertising.
It's like they're handing out training wheels over there.
Today Rep. Paul Ryan appeared on CNBC to discuss Obama's proposed budget and to hype the (unseen) Republican alternative:
We're going to go in a completely different direction, and show the American people how we would do things much, much differently to restore growth and confidence to our economy, keep the American economy growing, and not switch over to a Europeanized type of economy.
The reaction from the CNBC's guest co-host, Fred Malek, founder of Thayer Capital Partners?
Paul, that gives me a lot of confidence, what you said. I think you're absolutely going in the right direction.
And CNBC corporate boss Jeff Zucker wonders why the channel remains a prime target for criticism?
Just a follow-up to Tuesday night's item about the CNBC report which bemoaned the fact that those poor television networks were going to lose millions of dollars in ad revenue because they had to air Obama's primetime press conference.
We already noted the absurdity of throwing a pity party for TV execs who last night simply had to perform a rare public function in exchange for free use of the public airwaves. But the whole TV-lost-millions-in-revenue premise is also annoying because it's pure fantasy. And because CNBC played its viewers for rubes.
Its report suggested that because the nets had to televise Obama, they couldn't air the TV commercials that had already been purchased for that one-hour time slot. And technically, that's accurate. But the notion that networks automatically lost that ad money just isn't true. That's not how the business works because television advertising is not a zero sum game.
Combined, networks control more than one hundred hours of primetime programming each week. Obviously, if some ads get bumped for breaking news (i.e. a White House press conference), networks have the ability to air a those handful of lost ad slots on other programs, just as networks have done for decades. Think about it. Do you really think that when networks break into programming for hurricane coverage, or whatever, that the next day their ad salesmen start writing checks to Procter & Gamble and Budweiser and State Farm because their ads didn't run the previous day? That's simply not how the television business functions.
Networks do sometimes, very reluctantly, hand out free spots to* advertisers if the nets' entertainment programming, over many weeks and months, fails to live up to the ratings rate that the commercials were purchased on. (They're called make goods.) And in that case, yes, nets can lose millions in advertising. But to suggest, as CNBC did, that because of a single White House presser, the networks automatically lost every ad dollar from the commercials that didn't run last night is pretty misleading.
*Changed original wording to reflect point raised by reader.
How? By suggesting Obama is becoming something of a chameleon who reinvents himself depending on the political setting. The press spent most of 2000 depicting candidate Gore as somebody who was so unsure of his own political skin that he was constantly 'reinventing' himself.
Basically, that Gore was a phony.
Now check out the headline to the Times' article on the press conference: "In a Volatile Time, Obama Strikes a New Tone."
See, it's a new tone; a new approach. It's a new, different Obama. The Times leans heavily on that approach in the lead:
For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.
Instead, according to the Times, what we got "was the professor in chief."
Note how the Times stressed that Obama last night was completely different than the Obama who addressed Congress just one month ago. Back then Obama was a "fiery and inspirational speaker." The Times considers this to be newsworthy.
First of all, it seems self-evident that presidents communicate differently when addressing the nation with a prepared speech before Congress (or on a TV talk show), than they do when answering questions extemporaneously at a press conference. Second, it seems self-evident that there's nothing wrong with presidents communicating differently in different situations. But the Times seems to think it's a big deal Obama acted one way at the press conference and another way in his Congressional debate. That Obama wasn't fiery.
But was Obama really "fiery" when he addressed Congress in February? That's not how we remember his rather somber address to the nation. So we went back and read the Times' next-day article about Obama's speech (Headline: "Amid Gloom, Obama Pledges Recovery"). And guess what, according to the Times, Obama wasn't "fiery," or anything even approaching that.
It's only now, when trying to hype the idea that Obama is changing his tone (reinventing himself?), that the Times retroactively claims Obama was "fiery" in February and professorial in March.
Todd Gitlin at TPMCafe offers up the context by looking back at a February, 2001 presser and how scribes covered it. Notes Gitlin:
But at least when George W. Bush stood tall in the White House we didn't have any of that persnickety, fussy, lugubrious, pompous, professor stuff, and the nation's watchdogs fidgety students weren't bored out of their gourds "waiting for the ring of the bell."
Los Angeles Times blogger/former Laura Bush press secretary wasn't impressed by President Obama last night. Surprise, surprise.
Tuesday morning The Ticket examined the White House's current political strategy and asked the question who would show up at Barack Obama's second nationally-televised news conference that evening: the president or the senator?
The answer: Neither.
Professor Barack Obama showed up.
And if you remember one of those required college lecture courses in the large auditorium at 8:10 a.m. listening to a droning don, and how it felt, slumped in the cushy seats having skipped breakfast for an extra 13 minutes of ZZZZ.
this news conference seemed anticlimatic. (See video below.) At times the president appeared to be mailing in his delivery.
The result for anyone who stayed for the entire presentation was another lengthy, somber less-than-animated sales pitch for the need to spend trillions to jump-start the economy...
Now, I don't want Andrew Malcolm to be bored. That's a less-than-ideal way to go through your workday.
So here's a suggestion, Mr. Malcolm: Quit. Do it now. Hand in your press pass. There are plenty of out-of-work and soon-to-be-out-of-work-reporters who actually give a damn and who won't have any trouble staying awake for a presidential press conference and who are capable of producing a substantive article that will actually help readers understand what is happening in the world, instead of simply whining that they are insufficiently stimulated. Let one of them have your job. Take up skydiving or running with the bulls or whatever it takes to get you sufficiently excited, and let serious people do your serious job.