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October 8, 2022

WHCA ESSAY SERIES: The Shouted Question

By Kelly O’Donnell

Senior White House Correspondent, NBC News

And Vice President, WHCA

There is a clamor at the end of many presidential events of all sorts and subjects.  That burst of energy is the shouted question from the White House press corps seeking answers, comments or reactions from the most powerful leader in the world.  The shouted question is a long used tool to engage the president on behalf of the public.  A president’s words carry weight unlike any other official’s.  While a press secretary or senior official can conduct briefings and provide information, no one can speak with the same force as a president.  Even a simple “yes” or “no” can send signals around the world, move markets and influence American culture. 

Presidents themselves play a huge role in how this plays out.  They can hold an event and call on reporters in attendance. They can stop by the James S. Brady Briefing Room, which is always wired and ready to transmit a president’s words to the world.  They can grant an interview.   But when a president chooses not to be accessible to questions, maybe for days or weeks, the shouted question could be the only option for reporters seeking answers on behalf of the public.

Looking back at press clippings from the 1980s, The New York Times ran a piece, “The Presidency; Shouting Questions at Reagan” that observed, “Such chaotic exchanges have become the primary way that Mr. Reagan communicates with the press corps these days.”  Longtime ABC newsman Sam Donaldson burnished his reputation with loud questions that changed expectations for where and when reporters would act.  A smiling President Reagan often cupped his ear, as if to suggest, he could not discern what was being shouted across the South Lawn. 

The shouted question can be effective.  It can also appear ill-mannered.  The exercise of press freedom as part of our First Amendment is not always elegant or polite nor is it meant to be.  Experienced reporters do use discretion.  Events that are solemn or extremely formal are not suitable for shouted questions.  Reporters are not particularly fond of hollering.  Important questions often require careful and nuanced wording that does not lend itself to yelling.  That means questions are often reduced to a few key words in an effort to get the president’s attention.  

The more presidents make themselves available to respond to urgent matters and news of the day, the less likely shouted question are needed.  Presidents also know that shouted questions are coming.  White House aides can use loud music at the end of an event to drown out reporters’ voices or use staging to keep reporters at a distance.  At times, presidents and their staff use shouted questions to their own advantage to address topics not on the day’s schedule.  They may see political benefit by sparring with reporters and appearing spontaneous.

There is a correlation between the frequency of shouted questions and a lack of access to more formal question opportunities.  Martha Kumar has been studying these interactions for many years and developed expertise.   Using her data comparing the first 20 months of several presidencies, the differences are noteworthy.  President Biden has done 42 interviews, the fewest of among presidents going back to Ronald Reagan.  Barack Obama, by comparison, did 232 in the same time period.  However, President Biden has engaged in many unscheduled exchanges with reporters. Kumar tracked Mr. Biden taking those informal questions 326 times.

Looking at formal press conferences, President Biden has done 17 press conferences.  President Trump did 39.  Presidents Obama and George W. Bush each held 37.   But going back a few decades, the difference is sharper. Bill Clinton held 71 news conferences and the elder George Bush did 61.  Those figures include both solo news conferences and when joined by another world leader during the first 20 months in office. 

The White House Historical Association notes that President Carter held regular monthly news conferences and invited reporters to meet with him in the Cabinet Room.

Tensions have always been present between a president and the White House press corps.  Presidents often do not like their coverage.  Being at the center of shouted questions can be unpleasant.  When voices overlap and mix with background noise, it must be difficult to hear what is being asked.  President Biden let his frustration be known at the end of a White House event October 3, 2022 when he made a side comment to an event participant.  When reporters began shouting questions, the president ignored them but said, “Among the only press in the world that does this. Seriously.”  Americans journalists do question leaders vigorously which is directly linked to the freedoms of our system.  But the practice is not uniquely American, journalists in the United Kingdom and Israel are also among those known to pepper leaders to hold them to account.

Shouted questions do elicit answers that inform our fellow citizens.  Presidents respond to those questions because they can communicate directly and quickly to the public they serve.  What a president thinks and says matters here and around the world.  So when you hear those booming voices, the aim is not to make noise but to find more light.

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