Washington Matters


The Shameless Dodging of Watchdogs


John McCain and Barack Obama won't hold a serious, full blown news conference until after the election. Both candidates are calculating that the risks posed by a free-wheeling question-and-answer session with reporters outweigh any appearance of being guarded or even secretive. And besides, they're only stiffing the highly unpopular news media, right? Wrong.

Sure, there'll be some short appearances on cable news channels and the occasional Sunday talk show. There will be interviews with local and foreign reporters and Obama and McCain will take the occasional shouted question as they walk across a tarmac or toward their waiting motorcade.

In other words, they are both adapting for themselves the strategy the McCain camp has chosen for vice presidential nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, answer questions only in tightly controlled or relatively low-risk situations.

(Obama running-mate Joe Biden, who has talked to reporters day-in, day-out for decades as a senator and has always been comfortable with the media, and meets and chats with traveling political reporters routinely. But he's not the guy at the top of the ticket and is a far better-known quantity than the relatively obscure Palin.)

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There simply won't be anything like a lengthy press conference to answer detailed questions about where they stand on major policy questions, national and global developments or the conduct of their campaigns -- big questions whose answers have consequences for the country or reveal something about the candidate, not lipstick, be it on pigs or hockey moms.

There will be the debates, of course, and they will matter -- they may even determine the outcome of the election. But those are carefully prepared-for events usually involving only a handful of questioners who focus on big issues. News conferences are far more free-wheeling events involving many questioners who have their own areas of expertise and are generally skilled at asking questions. They can ask detailed follow-up questions about whether a tax cut proposal would be refundable or about the significance of recent troop movements by an unfriendly government in a shaky part of the world. Good reporters know a dodge or inconsistency when they see it and will find different ways to try to get at a topic until they either get a real answer or it is apparent that they won't get one at all, which often can be important information in and of itself.

There was a time that constantly dodging reporters was a big risk for candidates. They looked as if they had something to hide. But these days if there is any profession in lower disregard that politics, it's journalism. And politicians use that -- play it to their advantage, actually -- as much as possible. Look at how the McCain camp portrayed reporters as bullies and tools of Democrats for asking questions about Palin or how Obama easily includes the media in his list of those playing politics as usual.

Of course the news media has its problems and makes massive, embarrassing blunders worthy of criticism. But like it or not, journalists are the only ones in a position to ask and get answers about things that matter on a regular and immediate basis. There is no other mechanism for holding candidates for or holders of public office accountable on a regular and immediate basis or for evaluating their judgment, experiences and abilities. When the country is making a decision about who to turn to in difficult and downright scary times, slipping the watchdogs is a bad and even shameful thing.




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