Matt Towery / March 26, 2009

The “Tent City” Press Conference: Obama’s Free Media Ride Continues

Like him or not, Barack Obama once again presented a cool, calm and collected image during his most recent press conference. And his appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” was a hit with the public.

Republicans and conservatives have a major problem on their hands, because even if Obama is reading every word he speaks, he is scoring big points in the image game.

At the same time, he’s getting an easy ride with most media, even if the same can’t be said of all the officials in his administration. Early in his latest press conference, I was struck by the docile questions being lobbed the president’s way.

It took the CBS White House correspondent to finally hit the president with anything resembling a tough question. More direct questions followed. What was absent was the “gotcha” confrontational press corps we’ve seen in prior administrations. This may be a part of the so-called “honeymoon” period that presidents allegedly enjoy. Or it could be an extension of what I viewed to be special treatment of candidate Obama against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

All this is plain enough. What’s truly innovative with Obama’s press conferences, though, is their tightly managed presentation – who’s included and who’s left out, plus the trick of having journalists ask supposed questions that are really openings for the president to proselytize.

Gone are the days in which members of the press fight to be heard and are called upon at random. Pre-picked questioners are nothing new to presidential press conferences. But gone are the times when a president would point to a reporter and identify the person by their hair color or clothing style. Obama has his list of favorites.

This was the first presidential news conference I have seen in which both The Washington Post and The New York Times were shut out of the questioning. Now there’s “real change” for you.

One reporter did manage to get something edgy in. He reported that a phenomenal number of American children are now homeless, and that tent cities have sprung up all over the country. The softball part of his question was, in essence, “Why haven’t you solved this yet?”

Give us a break. No one in that room or watching that press conference expected that Obama would have solved the human impact from the financial crisis in two months. This question could have instead been phrased: “Mr. President, the Reagan and Bush years of cold-heartedness and reckless economic policy now have millions of people living in tent cities. When can you rescue these people?”

Obama promptly acknowledged the information the reporter provided, and then said essentially that it will take time to solve the problem. A softball hit out of the park.

But what about these tent cities? Well, one New York publication recently wrote that tent cities are being erected throughout the nation, particularly in the South and the Midwest and on the West Coast. It specifically mentioned Atlanta, the city where I spend much of my time, as one of the areas with the greatest problems.

Sure, Atlanta has homeless people, as do other places. But trust me, if there is a tent city in Atlanta, no one has seen it. The same goes for most of the areas mentioned in the article. There are tent cities in some places, such as California, and it is possible we may all be living in tents if we have to pay off the mind-blowing cost of spending proposed by Washington.

But to give the nation the impression that America’s cities are littered with large modern-day “Hoovervilles” is just another example of how we are being led down the path of believing that not only wealth but a mere comfortable living should be questioned because we now are in a depression so bad that everyone has taken to their local park to live.

Here’s the dirty little secret about some of the “tent cities”: They are prompted by “community activists” and are conceived less to provide refuge for the poor than as a means of political protest.

I don’t want anyone sleeping out in the cold, just like I don’t want any president to be unnecessarily roughed up by the media. But it’s time that both the White House and the press start insisting President Obama not be given a cakewalk and his press conferences not be turned into messaging from the media.


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