First There Is a Press Conference, Then There Is No Press Conference, Then There Is …

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that President Bush would hold no more formal press conferences. Today, President Bush held a press conference. Chatterbox prides himself on having a subtle mind, but this Zen riddle threw him for a loop. Is Bush holding press conferences, or isn’t he? He decided to investigate.

First stop: White House press secretary Ari Fleischer’s March 28 briefing. Here’s the exchange in full (pardon the length, but the path to enlightenment was never short):

Q: And when does the president plan to have a news conference?

Fleischer: You never know.

Q: I mean, is he planning to actually have–as far as I can tell, the only one he’s really done is when he came down here on short notice, pretty early on.

Fleischer: He always reserves the right to come down here on short notice. And he very well may.

Q: Will he actually plan to have a formal news conference?

Fleischer: Again, the president considers every day he takes the questions from the press, which he does on a virtually daily basis, a way to take your questions.

Q: Not today.

 Fleischer: Notice emphasis on “virtually.”

 Q: So the answer to that would be no, he doesn’t plan to have one anytime soon?

Fleischer: The president considers when he comes down here and takes questions a formal news conference. Of course, when he was with President Fox in Mexico, the two stood up, took questions. Prime Minister Blair, the meetings in the Oval Office with foreign leaders. The president continues to be accessible, and that will be his approach.

Q: No solo news conference in the East Room, with chairs and the formal set-up?

Fleischer: Let me fill you in a little more on that. What the president thinks is important is to be available to answer reporters’ questions, regardless of what room he happens to be in. He doesn’t think the American people really care a whit about whether he’s in the East Room or in the press briefing room. The president prefers an informality about certain things. What’s important is that people have an opportunity to ask questions. And I think when you look at how many questions the president has taken from the press since day one of his administration, he’s readily available.

Q: I was going to say what Sonja said. It’s been almost 10 weeks. We’ve had one formal press conference.

Fleischer: Actually, that news conference was about four weeks ago. So it was not 10 weeks; it was four weeks ago.

Q: Still, we’ve had one in almost 10 weeks. And normally–I’m not trying to compare him with other presidents, but normally we would expect at least once a month. I don’t know if that’s the president’s feeling. I know he takes a lot of questions.

Fleischer: The president’s pleased to be accessible, and he’ll continue to be so. Not all the presidents always took questions at daily events the way the president does.

We see here two powerful forces in conflict. On one side, President Bush and his staff, apparently aware that he does not perform well in press conferences (Chatterbox has an unkind opinion about why this is so), want to limit his exposure. On the other side, the White House press corps wants to throw a tantrum about Bush’s inaccessibility to the press. The flashpoint becomes something called a “formal press conference.” Unlike today’s press conference, which, Mike Allen of the Washington Post reports, was called “with 45 minutes’ notice” and which was held in the White House press room, formal press conferences are usually announced with at least one day’s notice and are held in the East Room.

The notice is important to the press because reporters want time to consult with various experts about what killer question they should ask. (Quite often, the “expert” is a bureau chief, editor, publisher, or other interfering news boss. The rage about lack of notice frequently cascades down from this source.) In practice, though, the questions asked without advance notice rarely differ from the questions asked with plenty of notice, except that in press conferences with plenty of notice (i.e., “formal” East Room press conferences), the questions tend to run longer and involve a lot of pompous speechifying by the reporter. The reason for this, Chatterbox’s colleague Jacob Weisberg once explained, is that the reporter needs to filibuster long enough for his lower-third ID (“John Smith, the Waukegan Times Press Chronicle Post Express“) to flash onto the screen. This isn’t as much of an issue in the press room, where the camera mostly stays trained on the president and where they don’t give you a chyron at all. The East Room’s aura of pomp can also be appealing to reporters. (The press room is cramped and unlovely.)

“I don’t care what room it’s in or how much warning they give,” the Post’s Dana Milbank told Chatterbox. (Here’s a link to Milbank’s new book.) “I think that’s a TV concern.” The superior visuals in the East Room and the air of an anticipated “event” are thought to increase the likelihood that the network will cut away from its prime time programming (formal news conferences are usually held at night) to air the press conference live. In fact, though, the networks no longer do this very often because it’s death to nighttime ratings. ABC’s Terry Moran told Chatterbox he actually prefers having press conferences in the press room. “I think we get more of who Bush is in this scenario than we do in the highly formalized, more artificial format of the East Room,” where everybody’s “posing for the prime time cameras.”

In its fuss over “formal” versus “informal” press conferences, the White House press corps has allowed its two legitimate beefs to get obscured. One is that, in proclaiming his love of informality, Bush is trying to pass off a five-minute photo op (at which reporters may shout one or two questions that Bush is likely to ignore) as an equivalent to a press conference. It is not. The other is that even the “informal” press conferences have been infrequent and are likely to remain so. By luring reporters into an argument about whether they get to sample the East Room’s upholstered splendor, Fleischer has tricked them out of arguing that Bush is hiding from the press.