Those darned press conferences

THOSE DARNED PRESS CONFERENCES…. Howard Kurtz’s piece on President Obama’s press conferences is well worth reading, but there was one angle that stood out: the networks really hate to give up an hour of prime time.

[N]etwork executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the current economic downturn.

The networks “absolutely” feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS’s senior vice president: “It’s an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used.”

While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, “there was nothing” at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. “There hardly ever is these days, because there’s so much coverage all the time.”

Had Obama not answered the last question that evening — declaring that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates at his home — the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news.

In terms of making an announcement or unveiling a new initiative, it’s true that the latest presser wasn’t exactly filled with headline-grabbing revelations. At the same time, though, we are in the middle of an extremely important policy debate, involving one-sixth of the economy, and there are many Americans who are confused about the details and the proposal. It stands to reason the president would want to host an event — at a time when most of the country can see it — to respond to questions and explain what’s going on.

For that matter, it’s striking to hear networks complain — often and on the record — about having too many opportunities to ask the president questions. As Greg Sargent noted, “[F]or the networks to gripe that the president is making himself available for questioning too often is just an absurd complaint, and hardly seems like something a self-described news organization should be moaning about.”

Kurtz’s report added that the president called on 10 reporters and answered with “lengthy responses.” Obama’s “professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines,” Kurtz added.

Perhaps, but it still leads to a strange dynamic: major media players complaining about having too much access to a president who is too detailed and substantive.

As for the financial stakes, an hour of prime time is clearly expensive. Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, told Mediaweek, “We lose more than $3 million a show.”

It’s a good thing, then, the networks have free use of the public’s airwaves.