Obama's List: Who Gets To Ask A Question?

(CBS)
As one among a throng of reporters last evening in the East Room, I was struck by the degree to which the White House Press Corps has been tamed, if not mollified, on one aspect of our conduct.

Nowadays, it's standard practice at these sessions to wait quietly for the President to call the name of the next reporter from whom he'll take a question.

It's the journalistic equivalent of The Price Is Right. "Mark Knoller – come on down, you're the next reporter to play "Can You Answer This?"

It's very different from when I first started covering presidential news conferences in 1976 during the Administration of Gerald Ford. Then, reporters would shout and wave their hands at the president in the hope of being recognized for the next question. The practice continued into the Carter, Reagan, Bush/41 and Clinton presidencies.

"Mr. President, Mr. President," would come the bellows from a room full of reporters. The trick was to gauge precisely when the President had spoken the last word of his answer to the previous question and try to be first to speak up in the hope of making eye contact so he'll call you name - or in the case of a young AP Radio reporter whose name he didn't know - getting a nod and an index finger pointed at you to indicate you're at bat.

During the Reagan years, women in the press corps also determined that the President was attracted to red garments and so some would wear bright red dresses to attract Mr. Reagan's attention. CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, who covered the Reagan Presidency, tried that ruse one night, but it backfired. Reagan called on NBC's Judy Woodruff, but called her "Lesley."

The practice of shouting for the President's attention came to the end at the insistence of the second President Bush. He thought it unseemly to be shouted at and made it clear that those who engaged in the practice had zero chance of being selected.

Top aides would usually provide President Bush with a list of reporters on whom he should call. Sometimes, he would be given a seating chart with circles around the names of reporters he should select, an "X" through the names of those he shouldn't, and no markings on other journalists about whom the White House aides had no opinion.

The shouting quickly died down - though there would be occasional breaches of the decorum.

But last evening, the silence was deafening, as the assemblage of reporters waited for President Obama to consult his list and call out the name of the next lucky contestant.

And yet, being a person of ample volume, I miss the way it was.


(CBS)
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.



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