the peculiar draw of the press conference

Dana Milbank's WaPo piece this morning - Bush's News Conference Almost Makes News - left me with mixed emotions.

At first, relief - "Halleluia! It is possible for the president to have a press conference without it being splashed over the front page!"

If you've ever doubted the press is played by the government - or, less Machievellian-ly, that the press has conflicting incentives when it comes to reporting news from the White House and so often looks like it's being played by the administration - you only have to look at the phenomenon of the White House Press Conference to be disillusioned.

Here's the set up: the president calls a press conference; because he's the most powerful man in the US - and probably the world - what he says has got to be important, right? If we don't report it like it's big news, others would, and we'd look like we're slacking. Also, if we don't report on the president's words, we may get accused of being biased against the White House. So... WH press conference = Front page news.

Putting aside the whole biased press idea (for another post I'm sure), can we ask the question - is what the president says, in fact, news? I'd like to suggest not - and that the press instinctively reporting a president's words can be misleading in a couple of ways.

Not news you say? Yeah. It may be interesting to hear the president's opinion and where he stands on an issue, but - we almost always know that before his press conference. (By the way, when I refer to "the president" I'm not just talking about our current one - this is true for all prezzies - but since this one is most fresh in my mind I will be using him as a good example.) Also, just because a president says he stands for something, doesn't mean anything is going to change because of his stand. Think of the many speeches on immigration - the president comes out saying Congress should take action to open up immigration, but as most DC watchers reported, he doesn't follow through with the actions on the Hill needed to really push legislation through. So the president ends up with a few sound bites, but nothing really happens.

Misleading? Well, yes. For one, given conversations I have with my generally well educated and informed friends, I think there is a wide spread misconception that when a president says he stands for something, he really stands for it. But going back to the immigration issue - if someone says they support something but don't do anything, do they really support it? For two, the sound bites that get red carpetted right up to the front page can pretty much be whatever the president wants them to be. That's why (maybe mixed in with they're "we're not biased" paranoia), the New York Times can end up placing a front page headline that says "Progress in Iraq" - as they did after the president's speech last week.

So, exciting to find a press conference not on the front page! But wait, don't get so gleeful there, girl. The reason the president's words won't make any headlines? Because it's on a topic that journalists know just ain't sexy enough - you know, children's health care.