Public is poorer when leaders avoid news conferences

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

How long since you’ve read a story from an actual news conference with the United States president or the Iowa governor? Or since you’ve viewed one on TV?

Probably quite a while, and if you remember one, it probably took place quite a while after the one before that.

It used to be customary for a chief executive to hold regular press conferences, where reporters could ask questions, including followups. Not anymore. Today what passes for a “press conference” is usually a staged event where the executive reads a statement, maybe delivers a one-liner to one of the many shouted questions, and then exits stage right.

One source of the press conference decline, of course, comes from the rise of social media at the expense of traditional media. An increasing number of government officials, especially those at the top of the heap, have decided they no longer need to answer to the press, since fewer of their constituents appear to read newspapers or watch television today. Political leaders can send an unfiltered message to the public through social media platforms.

It’s the same reason some candidates refuse to sit down with editorial teams to discuss their positions on important issues of the day. It’s easier to put out something catchy on social media, without having to answer followup questions.

President Joe Biden is a case in point. In the past 100 years, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have held fewer press conferences than Biden. A study by The American Presidency Project, a university-based research effort, found that Biden averaged only ten news conferences a year during his first two years as President. Trump averaged 20, Obama 23, Bill Clinton 42, Herbert Hoover 82, and Calvin Coolidge (“Silent Cal”) averaged 90. Nixon and Reagan (“The Great Communicator”) each averaged seven.

Press interviews, as opposed to press conferences, show the same contrast. Biden gave 54 interviews during his first two years as president, including some with celebrities rather than bona fide journalists. Trump gave 202, Obama 275, George W. Bush 89, Clinton 132, George H.W. Bush 96, and Reagan 106 during their first two years.

Biden has sometimes met with New York Times columnists, but nearly always off the record.

Tamara Keith, a National Public Radio White House reporter and president of the White House Corespondents’ Association, notes that Biden usually responds to shouted questions at the end of meetings or events. But that’s a sorry replacement for organized news conferences, where reporters ask thoughtful questions and get thoughtful answers.

Keith summed up Biden’s preferred practice: “With shouted questions, he chooses the question. With a press conference, he can choose the questioner but he can’t choose the question.”

It’s a sad comedown for Biden. In 2008 he brought his then-presidential campaign to Jefferson, and held forth for about an hour and a half, answering every question posed to him by the crowd, showing intimate familiarity with the issues of the day. I would think he could still do that today, or something close to it.

It’s a similar story with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Her regular open press conferences are few and far between. Some Des Moines journalists who cover Capitol Hill report that the governor’s last true news conference happened in July. It was not announced until the day before, and not all media outlets were notified.

Before that event, the most recent Reynolds stand-alone news conference was reportedly in July 2022, a year earlier. She held a conference in March, but it was done jointly with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, with the subject mostly about a project of that division. Reynolds answered few journalists’ questions, according to the statehouse reporters.

Governor Bob Ray, who served five terms in that office from 1969 to 1983, held daily press conferences Monday through Friday when he was in Des Moines until the mid-1970s, when he reduced them to three times a week. Governor Terry Branstad, who succeeded Ray, held Des Moines press conferences twice a week, and also out in the state on a regular basis during his frequent travels. After his return to the governor’s office in 2011, Branstad held a press conference almost every Monday.

Neither former Iowa chief executive was reluctant to respond to reporters’ questions, and consequently the people of Iowa could keep up to speed on the progress and glitches surrounding important current state issues.

Whether at the federal or the state level, a so-called “news conference” where the executive reads or recites a statement about a topic of political interest and then abandons the microphone after a couple of minutes is not particularly edifying. They might just as well simply hand out a press release and call it a day.

Very few important issues should slide through to the action stage without some Q and A exchanges with journalists familiar with the ins and outs on the topic. That’s where true news conferences come in. The public is the poorer when they don’t happen.

Editor’s note: Laura Belin has previously reported for Bleeding Heartland on how Reynolds failed to keep her 2018 campaign promise to hold weekly news conferences and sharply curtailed the practice in 2021 and 2022.

Top image: President Joe Biden participates in a phone call with Jewish faith leaders to commemorate the high holidays on September 14, 2023, in the Oval Office. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz, available via Flickr.

About the Author(s)

Rick Morain

  • good article

    Only thing worse than few or limited press conferences is when only “friendly” journalists are called on or allowed to ask questions. Disgusting!

  • Here’s why

    My educated guess is that the Biden administration avoids press conferences because the President no longer have the cognitive ability to answer complex questions thoroughly and intelligently. His entourage is protecting him from media in the vain hope of hiding this fact.

    Governing however requires influencing the media. That’s why the New York Times publishes so many leads from unidentified Government sources. Here, the entourage of Biden, whatever people with plain cognitive ability who are actually running the country, feed narratives to the NYT. The Times has de facto become a sort of Pravda of the Biden administration. This sad finding is politely alluded in this piece with “Biden has sometimes met with New York Times columnists, but nearly always off the record.”

    I personally met Biden, but never Reynolds. She is younger and I cannot make claims on her cognitive abilities. She seems very effective at implementing laws copied from recent Florida laws. Once they have an agenda and a model to copy, some may feel that discussions and Press Conference are unnecessary.

  • With Room to Spare

    Count me among those who seek a better functioning government and more responsible media.

    But right now we’ve got what we’ve got.

    Joe Biden is ably improving an economy wracked by pandemic headwinds; investing in new public infrastructure; shepherding policy to attack climate change; strengthening NATO; defending freedom in Ukraine; and now supporting the good people of Israel.

    Elect a Democratic congress and he’ll protect a woman’s right to choose; fight for voting rights; and strive to advance economic support for the middle class and those we need a hand-up.

    Joe’s succeeding because he’s assembled a competent team to make government work, as best it can, despite the limitations caused by a dysfunctional and irresponsible GOP.

    And . . . he does not shrink from making the tough calls.

    As I see it, Joe’s the guy who stands between us and the uncertain form of democracy that Trump and the rest of that whack crowd would represent.

    In this moment, we don’t need perfect. We need competent. And Joe clears that bar with plenty of room to spare.