Watchdogs or Lapdogs?

| November / December 2007

When President Bush holds one of his rare press conferences, full of softball questions and non-answers, media watchers tend to have fits of nostalgia for a time when bulldog journalists peppered presidents with challenging questions. It turns out, though, that this iconic image of the White House press corps is more fiction than fact, at least when it comes to how reporters handle foreign and military matters. Foreign Policy (July/Aug. 2007) reports on a study led by UCLA sociologists that examined 4,608 questions asked at presidential news conferences from 1953 to 2000 and found that while economic developments, such as spikes in unemployment, have historically spurred journalists to ask adversarial questions, administrations’ edicts on foreign policy tend to go unchallenged. The researchers speculate that journalists’ timidity might stem from their limited access to independent information on foreign affairs, or it could be that their patriotism has a tempering effect. If the beating Bush has taken in the press on Iraq is any indication, the current situation could buck the trend, though the data are not in yet. Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 2007) notes that the researchers are working to extend the study from 2000 on.