Several veteran and prize-winning journalists who covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush say that the current crop of White House correspondents are too timid and deferential and have played a role in killing the impact of presidential news conferences.
"If you watch an Obama news conference, and watched a Bush news conference previous to that, where correspondents sit in their seats with their hands folded on their laps, [it's] as if they are in the room with a monarch and they have to wait to be recognized by the president," says Sid Davis, the former NBC Washington bureau chief who covered nine presidents. "It looks like they are watching a funeral service at [Washington funeral firm] Joseph Gawler's and it shouldn't be that way."
Adds Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Haynes Johnson, "It's all very stale, very structured, very pale."
And longtime NBC and ABC reporter Sander Vanocur: "You want to know what's wrong with the press? The press is what's wrong with the press."
They and others anchored a media panel Monday night organized by the White House Historical Association to herald the 50th anniversary of the first live televised news conference, conducted by JFK. Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry moderated the discussion from the very same State Department Dean Acheson Auditorium where Kennedy eventually conducted 60 televised news conferences with ease and humor. [See who has been visiting the White House.]
Each of the journalists attended the press conferences and were blunt on JFK's style and honesty.
When the topic turn to today's White House press corps, the grizzled veterans were dismissive, calling them weak imitations of their Cold War predecessors.
Davis says "I don't like today's news conferences" with the president. Kennedy's, he says, were "thoroughly unrehearsed, natural and they worked to a large extent." Today's versions, he adds, "look like they are rehearsed."
Worse, he says, reporters look like stenographers. "I think democracy is noisy. The news conferences should get to back to what they were even if people are going to raise their voices."
Former Today Show newsman John Palmer went to so far as to suggest that a weakened press, a 24-hour news cycle, coupled with presidents who don't like live press conferences, have killed the impact of the events. "I think we are witnessing the demise of the televised news conference. I think its time is past," he says. [Read 10 things you didn't know about White House spokesman Jay Carney.]
"The news conference won't have the big command that it had before," he adds.
McCurry, however, says that the situation hasn't become that bad. "Reports of the press conference's death are exaggerated, I think," he says. "Presidents will need a forum like that to clear the air and give at least the appearance of accountability--and the press will continue to want to demonstrate its relevance by standing up and speaking truth to power."
But he conceded that what Palmer called the "golden age" of presidential news conferences, like the videos of an engaging JFK shown at the panel discussion, might be over. Presidents who don't like press conferences will labor through them but they won't have the magic of some of what we watched last night," says McCurry.