REPORT: Media favor process over substance in Obama press briefings

Opposite findings with Bush

››› ››› ELBERT VENTURA, ROB SAVILLO & LAUREN AUERBACH

A Media Matters study shows that the White House press corps asked significantly more process than substance questions about the Obama economic recovery bill. By contrast, while the disparity in substance and process questions was even greater in the context of the Bush administration's tax cut plan in 2001, it was in the opposite direction -- with reporters far more focused on substance than process.

A Media Matters for America analysis of White House press briefing questions about President Obama's economic recovery package found that a significant majority of them -- 62 percent -- focused on the politics and process surrounding the plan. By contrast, the study found that in 2001, more than two-thirds of White House press briefing questions about the tax-cut package promoted by the Bush administration focused on the substance of the plan. In addition, the study found that White House reporters were far more fixated on the success or failure of Obama's efforts to get bipartisan support for the economic recovery bill than they were concerned with the success or failure of President Bush's for his tax cut package, despite the fact that Bush ran on a promise to "change the tone in Washington" and "move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past."

The findings of Media Matters' study -- that the White House press corps focused on process over substance in 2009, and that reporters were far more concerned with Obama's efforts at bipartisanship than with Bush's -- are consistent with what Media Matters has previously documented in the media's coverage of Obama's recovery plan: that in addition to the prevalence of falsehoods and misinformation in coverage of the bill and of economic issues in general during the first 100 days of the Obama administration, that coverage was further marred by a lack of substance and expertise. Television outlets hosted remarkably few economists in their coverage of the economic recovery bill; comparably, the White House press corps demonstrated a greater interest in the process and politics of the recovery bill than in its substance.

According to the analysis, 62 percent of the questions about Obama's recovery package focused on the political and procedural aspects of the bill, while 38 percent were substance-oriented. Examples of daily briefing questions to the White House communications staff that focused on process and politics include:

  • "A majority of the American people apparently support blocking or making major changes to the stimulus bill, according to a Gallup poll. Are you worried at all that you've lost control of the process on how this bill is perceived?" (2/5/09)
  • "Are you saying we're misreading the President's remarks today when we -- if we say he sounded more combative and increasingly impatient with the speed at which the stimulus plan is going through Congress?" (2/5/09)
  • "Is there an 'us versus them' dynamic being played out here rhetorically for the President?" (2/6/09)
  • "In days past, when we asked you whether he was going to take this effort to sell the stimulus on the road, you told us there weren't any plans to do that. ... But it now appears he is going to be hitting the road. And is that a change in strategy because there's a sense that you're kind of behind where you wanted to be at this point?" (2/6/09)

By contrast, White House press briefing questions about the tax-cut package promoted by the Bush administration in 2001, which was signed into law in June of that year, largely focused on the substance and details of the plan. The study found that 68 percent of the press briefing questions to the Bush White House communications staff about the tax cuts were substance-oriented, while 32 percent were politics- and process-oriented questions.

briefing1

Another notable difference between the 2001 and 2009 press briefing questions was the discussion of bipartisanship. In 2009, 25 percent of the questions about the stimulus package raised or involved the issue of bipartisanship, compared with 9 percent of questions about the tax cuts in 2001. The media fixation on Obama's efforts at bipartisanship was underscored by a question asked by NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd to Gibbs at a January 23, 2009, briefing: "Would he veto a bill -- would he veto a [recovery] bill if it didn't have Republican support?" The question suggests that bipartisanship is an end in itself -- and its absence a failure on the part of the president -- rather than the means to the end of addressing the country's economic crisis.

briefing2

Other examples of questions about the recovery bill that focused on bipartisanship include:

  • "Robert, the President wants bipartisan support for his economic package. House Republicans came here on Friday and they expressed concerns about the bill on tax policy and other matters. So two questions. First, specifically what changes is the President willing to make, if any, to accommodate the Republican concerns? And also, how much -- how many Republican votes in your view would constitute bipartisan support? Does he want half of all Republicans voting for it, a third, a tenth? What is the level at which you can claim bipartisan support?" (1/26/09)
  • "A couple of different ways to get at these meetings today. Did the President come away with any specific reason to think that the Republicans will support the stimulus package? And the flip side of that, was there anything specific that he agreed to put in the bill to help bring along more support, or at the request of Republicans?" (1/27/09)
  • "Robert, last week your emphasis from the podium, and the President's emphasis, was that he wanted to listen to Republican ideas. Now he's going out today and criticizing their ideas and saying their ideas and saying their approach isn't going to work. Does he mainly hope to only get enough Republican votes to squeak this by in the Senate or does he want broad support --" (2/5/09)

While Obama himself raised the issue of bipartisanship in the context of the economic recovery bill, that fact alone cannot explain the disparity in interest in the issue from the media; Bush campaigned on a promise of bipartisanship and actively sought bipartisan support for his tax cuts. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush ran as "a uniter, not a divider." In a February 28, 2001, speech to Congress unveiling the budget proposal that included the tax cuts, Bush noted the importance of bipartisanship: "Let us agree to bridge old divides. But let us also agree that our good will must be dedicated to great goals. Bipartisanship is more than minding our manners. It is doing our duty." Moreover, like Obama, Bush also made visits to members of the opposing party in both the Senate and the House shortly after taking office. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer also stressed Bush's commitment to bipartisanship in passing the tax cuts during White House briefings:

  • "Short term, the most important step you can take is to cut taxes, to move forward on the president's tax plan. It is important, and it also sends a signal -- it will be a boost of confidence, we believe, for both markets and consumers, when they see Congress is working with the president in a bipartisan fashion on the president's agenda, that the era of gridlock in Washington is coming to an end." (1/30/01)
  • "And I want to say something -- whether the opposition or any hints of partisanship come from either the Republican side or the Democrat side, this is very much the way he governed in Texas, and it's very much the way a lot of governors, Democrat and Republican, govern in state capitals. And I've indicated this before -- it is a far, far better thing for Washington to be less partisan, like our state capitals, than people in the state capitals be more partisan like Washington. And that is the spirit in which he will govern, regardless of any criticism, left or right." (2/1/01)
  • "I think as we proceed with our plans on education, our plans on tax cuts up and down the line, you're going to hear from some of the more liberal members of the Democrat party nothing but opposition. What you won't hear is the silence that comes from the rotating coalitions of Democrats who are going to be prepared to vote with and work with President Bush. And that's how we are going to put together the governing, bipartisan coalitions that get this legislation enacted into law. And that's where the President's focus will be." (2/8/01)

Methodology

Media Matters coded every White House press briefing question about the Bush administration's tax cut package from January 21, 2001 -- the first day of the Bush administration -- through June 13, 2001, one week after Bush signed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act into law. We also coded every White House press briefing question about the Obama administration's economic recovery plan from January 21 -- the first day of the administration -- through February 24, one week after Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law.

White House press briefing transcripts from 2001 were accessed through the WhiteHouse.gov archives. White House press briefing transcripts from 2009 were accessed through the current WhiteHouse.gov website. (Briefings identified as "press gaggles" were included in the coding.) There were 415 total questions coded from 2001 and 284 total questions coded from 2009.

Each question was coded for one of two categories: "Politics/Process" or "Substantive." A "Politics/Process" question is a question that generally focuses on the politics or process surrounding the plan and its passage. A "Substantive" question is a question that generally focuses on the substance, details, and real-world effects of the plan. If a question seemed to have equal portions of both politics/process and substance, coders erred on the side of coding it under "Substantive."

Questions that were coded as "Politics/Process" include:

  • "Are you saying that his strategy on all of his programs is to introduce exactly what he campaigned for, rather than talk behind the scenes with members of Congress and figure out what is likely to pass and then propose that?" (1/25/01)
  • "And could you also address the question of whether, in the 2002 elections, the President might be more inclined to campaign against, let's say, Democrats who opposed him on the tax cut?" (3/5/01)
  • "The President has been barnstorming around the country trying to drum up support for the tax cut and put pressure on specific members of Congress, spending political capital. Where does he get that capital, given the manner in which he came to office?" (3/7/01)
  • "Robert, to the President's way of thinking, do the rhetoric and actions of Democrats and Republicans so far meet his idea of change, or would he like to see additional change?" (1/27/09)
  • "Back on the politics thing, does the President endorse or support these outside groups pressuring Republicans with TV ads and other things? Does he have any message for them --" (1/29/09)
  • "Based on the speech last night and sort of by the tone over the last 24 hours, does the White House or the President sort of feel like they've allowed themselves -- you allowed yourself to get too bogged down in trying to win Republicans over and sort of forgot to just get the thing passed?" (2/6/09)

Questions that were coded as "Substantive" include:

  • "Ari, in the past you have indicated that the tax plan that he's proposed will be essentially what is sent to the Hill. I'm wondering if, at this point, there's any consideration of adding other tax cuts to the plan, particularly the alternative minimum tax, which there is a lot of talk on the Hill that that needs to be changed." (1/30/01)
  • "About the tax cut again, if I could. When you look at the President's core program of reducing marginal rates and inheritance and marriage and a few other items, all of your initiatives, to date, education, faith-based, have also included tax incentives. The energy proposal is making its way on the Hill and has tax incentives. Isn't there a good chance that the aggregate cost of a tax cut proposal will be much larger than $1.6 trillion?" (1/31/01)
  • "Ari, you said a few moments ago that surplus estimates are exploding. And if that's the case and we're going to have these big surpluses going forward, what's the danger in agreeing to some sort of trigger mechanism like the Democrats want to do with regard to a tax cut?" (3/5/01)
  • "What concrete, hit-home factors will the average person see after 18 months of this 75 percent payout?" (1/23/09)
  • "On the economic stimulus, Alice Rivlin -- Democrat, supporter of this President -- has looked at spending to create jobs both from a congressional perspective and from the Office of Management and Budget -- said yesterday that she's concerned that, structurally, the stimulus plan doesn't focus all of its attention on immediate job creation; that there's programmatic things -- some of them have been raised here in the briefing today -- that while it may be preferable and maybe should be done, shouldn't be in a stimulus plan; that the stimulus plan should focus 100 percent of its spending and legislative intensity on immediate job creation. Is the structural debate over what's going to be in this bill over as far as the White House is concerned, and it's a just a matter of the overall dollars?" (1/28/09)
  • "But in light of what we're hearing, these stories where -- like at Caterpillar, where they're saying, you know, we'll have to lay off more people before we can even see that benefit of rehiring some of those people -- is he being overly optimistic that these jobs can be created and created within this time period of 18 months or so?" (2/13/09)

We also coded for whether questions raised the issue of bipartisanship or compromise with the opposing party (including suggestions that the president had fallen short on his promise to engage the other party in negotiations over the legislation). Questions coded for this category include:

  • "Ari, on the tax cut, even in the face of the new CBO projections, the House minority leader today said that the President's plan for a tax cut 'threatens our prosperity and could return us to the big budget deficits of the 1980s.' For the spirit and sake of bipartisanship on the Hill, would the President consider submitting to Congress a tax package that is smaller than the one he campaigned on?" (1/31/01)
  • "So next week, when this comes to the House floor, is it expected to do -- you expect to see a sizeable number of Democrats cross over and vote with him." (3/2/01)
  • "In the Senate if you only get a few Democrats voting for your plan, you won't actually stand here and say that's a bipartisan agreement, will you?" (3/7/01)
  • "If the stimulus package winds up passing Congress with no or very minimal Republican support, will the administration view that as a disappointment?... It's not a hypothetical, because given the committee vote it's a very real possibility in the House." (1/23/09)
  • "The tone here sounds like he's just going to continue doing what he did to try to get Republicans to vote for this in the House. Doesn't he need to dramatically ratchet this up -- getting Democrats to compromise, working the Republicans, making changes in the bill?" (1/29/09)
  • "On the legislation, notwithstanding the President's efforts, he did not attract a single Republican in the House and he's having lots of difficulty getting any Republican support in the Senate. What lesson do you draw from that?" (2/6/09)
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Economic Recovery Plan
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