Journalism 8.0 : An 8-year lesson from the White House briefing room

 

President Barack Obama displayed his professorial chops at his final press conference, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the West Wing of the White House Thursday, afternoon, January 18, 2017. He talked about domestic and global issues; and he spoke candidly about news coverage. From where I sit, I found his insights thoughtful. President Obama’s remarks in bold could have been entitled, “President Obama instructs journalists not to give-in, but push even harder to inform citizens…”

Consider:

Journalists covering any beat can become familiar with newsmakers. Long ago veteran television broadcast journalist Chet Huntley said, “Journalists were never intended to be the cheerleaders…Tragically, that is their assigned role in authoritarian societies, but not here — yet.”

“Some of you have been covering me for a long time…Some of you I’ve just gotten to know.  We have traveled the world together.  We’ve hit a few singles, a few doubles together.  I’ve offered advice that I thought was pretty sound, like “don’t do stupid…stuff.”

Short, thoughtful questions rather than rolling questions with many layers are best. Also, shorter usable quotes may help to make that all important deadline.

“When you complained about my long answers, I just want you to know that the only reason they were long was because you asked six-part questions.”

Journalists’ lives are lonely, compliments are and fleeting at best. But, the job is to uncover and report the facts; if real lucky, the truth…it’s not a gig where you sing from the same song sheet.

“…I have enjoyed working with all of you.  That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed.  But that’s the point of this relationship.  You’re not supposed to be sycophants; you’re supposed to be skeptics.  You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. 

The journalist should be respectful, but Mr. nice guy, no.  Their reports can range from “news you can use,” to “speaking truth to power,” and many issues in between.

“You’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”

Journalists should not “treat news as a form of fiction.”  Hard news has its rewards.

“It keeps us honest.  It makes us work harder.  It made us think about how we are doing what we do and whether or not we’re able to deliver on what’s been requested by our constituents.” 

A Journalist’s role is critical to the democratic process; journalism is an underpinning of democracy…So?

“We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress.” 

Persistence is required. Follow-up questions often serve to move decision-makers to get the job done.

“And for example, every time you’ve asked “why haven’t you cured Ebola yet,” or “why is that still that hole in the Gulf,” it has given me the ability to go back to my team and say, ‘will you get this solved before the next press conference?’ (Laughter)”

“…It doesn’t work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry.  And you [members of the press] are the conduit through which they receive the information about what’s taking place in the halls of power.

Read President Obama’s Final Press Conference Transcript.

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