I began following Rick Dunham on Twitter yesterday, just in time to follow his tweets about Pres. Barack Obama’s first prime-time press conference.
(Is that an obnoxious number of hyperlinks for a first sentence? Probably. Oh well.)
Dunham is the D.C. bureau chief for The Houston Chronicle, which is my hometown newspaper and a former staple of my daily life. He and several other Chronicle reporters operate the paper’s “Texas on the Potomac” blog, which is where I today read several posts that made me newly and keenly aware of several ideological/political differences between Texan reporters/readers and national publications — that is, in light of Obama’s press conference last night.
First, some context:
- According to The New York Times, “the White House decided in advance which reporters would be selected” to ask questions of Obama.
- Prior to the conference, Dunham asked readers to submit questions for him to ask Obama. He and the other bureau reporters chose 15 questions that they thought should be asked — none of which, according to Dunham, were even touched upon by any of the 13 reporters whom the White House selected.
Now, for the meat of this post.
I read the Chronicle blog’s analysis (“Press corps asks about big issues but ignores little people”) of Obama’s methodology and the flow of the press conference. What caught my attention was the “ignores little people” part of the headline. (Being from Texas, I never considered Texans to be “little people” — either physically or ideologically.) So I read it — and was surprised by how surprised I was by how different priorities are for Texan reporters/readers as opposed to nationally published reporters.
An article by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post has a different approach. I’m comparing and contrasting two points brought up by the Chronicle and the Post, below. Emphasis (underlined) is mine.
- Dunham: Obama “effectively filibustered the press conference by giving long-winded answers, answering just 13 questions in 50 minutes.”
- Kurtz: “Obama controlled the tone of the East Room proceedings, speaking with utmost seriousness, gesturing with his hands and displaying a command of the facts. His lengthy, multi-part answers — allowing for just 13 questions — went well beyond what the journalists asked and defended his record while taking not-so-veiled slaps at the Republicans as ‘folks who presided over a doubling of national debt.’”
- Dunham: “What was missing from the press conference? A connection with the problems of real people. Yes, there were fewer-than-usual “inside baseball” questions from the White House press corps about the inside the beltway political process. But most of the 10 domestic policy questions skipped over the plight of working stiffs (and out-of-work stiffs) and instead focused on macroeconomic issues…”
- Kurtz: “The reporters’ questions were direct, succinct and restrained, with none of the showmanship that has sometimes marked past news conferences. The journalists stopped short of confrontation, as though they were sobered by the gravity of the financial crisis. [...] The only question that strayed from domestic or foreign policy was from The Washington Post’s Michael A. Fletcher, who asked about the admission by baseball star Alex Rodriguez that he once used steroids.”
To be fair, Kurtz seems borderline critical at times in his article. He points out that televised news conferences give the president an opportunity to “filibuster, deflect unwelcome questions or keep circling back to their main message. Follow-ups [by reporters] are often uneven, or non-existent.” He also acknowledges that Obama’s use of time — in how many questions he answered and how long he took to answer them — “left virtually no time for analysis on [broadcast] networks” because of popular TV shows’ being scheduled to air at 9 p.m.
But Dunham is almost severely critical and perhaps even bitter in his blog post. He seems to be on the offense against the national reporters (he starts out the post with “The White House press corps doesn’t think like us”) and on the defense for his readers and their interests/concerns:
Our readers’ excellent questions on things like renegotiating high-interest rate student loans or sending “bailout checks” directly to Americans and not to big banks were not on the minds of the reporters from the TV networks, national newspapers and others chosen by the President. Nobody shared our readers’ concerns about helping mortgage-holders pay down their housing debt.
So I checked out the 15 questions that Dunham and his reporters chose from their readers’ input — questions which they coupled with their own “analysis of whether the President talked about the subject.” (That blog post is here.)
Notably, the first topic raised in the post is the border fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. The economy, questions regarding reform and various counts of alleged corruption or conflicts of interest are of great concern to Houston readers, or at least as far as I can tell by the questions Dunham and his reporters selected.
Also, in examining/imagining the tone of the readers’ questions, it seems as if the readers:
- wanted Obama to address issues more specific to the U.S. and even more specific to Texas and the south
- are doubtful of Obama, his character and/or his abilities and, as such, question the nature of his character and/or his abilities
- wanted to put Obama on the defensive about his policies and campaign promises
I was surprised by how the Chronicle’s readers seemed to want to put Obama on the spot and by how differently the Chronicle (or, at least, the “Texas on the Potomac” blog) and the Post treated the press conference. I was even more surprised by how surprised I was. Obviously, how a paper approaches a subject is a reflection of that paper’s readership, and obviously, the Chronicle and the Post have very different readers.
But in my defense, I haven’t seriously read the Chronicle in about six years, and have instead been reading nationally distributed newspapers like the Post and the NYT. So I admit I’m more than a little out of touch with what matters to Texans. Which is slightly embarrassing.
I should and probably will read the Chronicle a little more often, now that I’m aware of these huge ideological and political differences between various regional readerships — perhaps something all journalists should do anyway.
Update (10:34 p.m., Feb. 10, 2009): I just reread this, and it seems like a very uneven blog post. That is, it’s as if I’m building up all this analysis and evidence, only to bring the post to a sudden, unexciting conclusion by way of a personal reflection/goal.
So I apologize if this post comes off like that to anyone who’s reading this. Really, my goal in writing this was to examine the differences in the approach and readership of two very different newspapers — not to come to any groundbreaking conclusion or insightful revelation.