In a very perplexing column Monday, Howard Kurtz of Fox News reflects on President Barack Obama's year-end press conference last week with the White House press corps. He has a hard time making up his mind about what he saw.
What a mess! Kurtz begins by lamenting a perceived lack of tough questions (the headline asks, "Where were the tough questions?), proceeds to say that it's okay if there are not tough questions at a press conference with the president ("I’m not saying the press has to be prosecutorial toward the president") then goes on to note that there were tough questions (from The Wall Street Journal's Colleen Nelson and The Associated Press' Julie Pace), and only gets around to criticizing anyone at about the eighth paragraph -- where he runs down McClatchy Newspapers' Lesley Clark for asking a "five-part question" that allowed Obama to filibuster. (Which is, I'd say, a fair point, though how often does Lesley Clark get a chance to ask questions? Maybe she has a lot of them.)
But then, Kurtz gets around to the question asked by American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent April Ryan. And by all appearances, it is something to which he was not paying close attention:
Radio reporter April Ryan asked about black America, which could have been a provocative question in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island. But she simply asked, “What is the state of relations?” And that allowed the president to hold forth on how things have gotten better but there’s more work to do.
Kurtz' characterization of Ryan's question is almost entirely untrue.
In the first place, some context is needed. Obama had, moments before, called a halt to the press conference and was preparing to quit the stage (as one member of the gathered press corps attempted to ask Obama the ultra-hard hitting inquiry, "Any New Year's resolutions?") when he reconsidered and called on Ryan. One might be inclined to give Ryan a break if, amid the hullabaloo, she didn't ask the most composed question. But Kurtz sells her several miles short by reporting that she "simply asked" this question: "What is the state of relations?" That's not the question she asked, however:
RYAN: Six years ago this month, I asked you what was the state of black America in the Oval Office, and you said it was the “the best of times and the worst of times.” You said it was the best of times in the sense that there was -- has never been more opportunity for African-Americans to receive a good education, and the worst of times for unemployment and the lack of opportunity. We're ending 2014. What is the state of black America as we talk about those issues as well as racial issues in this country?
Ryan didn't ask about "relations," she asked Obama for his assessment on the "state of black America." In so doing, she referenced a (somewhat glib) comment Obama made to her back in 2008 and asked if he could stand behind it six years later. Now, perhaps Kurtz is unsatisfied with Obama's answer. If so, he should say so. (Feel free to make your own assessment.) But this interrogative technique -- in which the interlocutor brings up a past statement to see if the person who made the statement can still defend it -- is fairly de rigeur for political reporting. It's basically what the hosts of every Sunday show do on a weekly basis.
Of course, in order to have moments like these, a reporter has to plant a seed in the first place. That's why I'm surprised that Kurtz doesn't see the value in the question that Bloomberg's Cheryl Bolen asked at this same press conference:
BOLEN: Looking ahead to your work with Congress next year, you’ve mentioned as an area of possible compromise tax reform. And so I am wondering, do you see a Republican Congress as presenting a better opportunity for actually getting tax reform next year? Will you be putting out a new proposal? Are you willing to consider both individual and corporate side of the tax ledger there? And also, are you still concerned about corporate inversions?
That question led to a lengthy answer in which Obama spoke very optimistically about the work that could get done between his administration and the Republican-dominated Congress. "The tax area is one area where we can get things done," he said, adding that there were "principles" that he and the GOP had in common. And he didn't stop there. The president also suggested that he was going to try to move on infrastructure spending with this Congress.
All of which means that by this time next year, if nothing has been achieved on either of these fronts, some enterprising reporter is going to get to reference these statements and ask the president why he got that wrong, and whether there was more he could have done to hatch an agreement. Perhaps Bolen will get to ask that herself. More likely than not, it will be another reporter who closes that circle -- and the credit Bolen deserves for planting that seed will go unmentioned. But it is upon the work of people like Bolen that future "tough questions" are built.
April Ryan, by contrast, was fortunate enough to be able to ask her own follow-up of the president. She literally did the same thing that Tim Russert once did every single Sunday. The only difference is that if it had been Russert asking that question, he'd have been hailed as a genius. Real talk.
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