Jan 19, 2017 by



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Why didn’t the DC Press Corps ask the hard questions in interviews with President Obama? (Photo: Marc Nozell)

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On January 10, President Barack Obama gave a farewell speech before 18,000 people at McCormick Place, Chicago’s convention center. Some media pundits called his remarks a return to Obama’s Chicago community organizer days. However, a lot of the rhetoric sounded like political pablum. Consider this, from the official White House transcript:

The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected President to the next. (Applause.) I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me. (Applause.) Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.

We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. (Applause.) Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

In a January 13 article, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) took the occasion to note that “for the eight years he was in office, President Barack Obama snubbed the Chicago press corps, ignoring repeated interview requests from local reporters in his adopted hometown.” According to the CJR, Chicago reporters were a bit perplexed, if not also miffed, that a sitting president who had such deep roots in the city would stiff-arm the hometown news team. After all, Chicago is where Obama started his career as an Illinois state senator. It was Illinois where he was elected United States senator in 2004, and it was in front of the Old State Capitol building that he announced his long shot candidacy for president in February of 2007. The decision pitted him against perennial “frontrunner” Hillary Clinton.

It would also be neglectful not to mention that Obama’s wife, Michelle, grew up on Chicago’s South Side and attended Chicago public schools until she matriculated to Princeton University and then Harvard Law School. The Obamas met and were married in Chicago.

So even though, Obama was raised and schooled in Hawaii, Chicago was the center of his political career and adult personal life. This is reason enough, perhaps, that the hometown reporters took it as a slight that Obama pretty much ignored them for eight years in office, except for a few days before he was getting ready to turn off the White House lights.

However, CJR reported that given this was his last major presidential address and his last visit to the Windy City as president, Obama gave five separate interviews with local five local television reporters.

Questions from the reporters focused, in particular, on the question of violence in the city:

All five TV reporters asked Obama about the gun violence in Chicago, and Obama made passing references to [a] Justice Department investigation. Levine, of CBS 2, even told the president that “it’s got to be frustrating that the most powerful man in the free world cannot stop the violence in his hometown.”

But in his farewell address, Obama didn’t talk about the violence, even though it has scarred many of the communities whose members have been most passionate in their support for him. Chicago had more than 700 murders in 2016, up from 495 the year before. Eight more people were killed the week before Obama returned to Chicago to give his speech. “Chicago has been in the national spotlight, the poster child for policing issues, gun violence,” says Kirk, the top editor at the Sun-Times. “We would have liked to hear from him on those very issues.”

It is interesting that metropolitan TV news reporters — who spend most of their time reporting on transportation tragedies, political feuds and cats rescued from trees by kindly fire persons — chose to ask the president of the United States about the ongoing violence in the city that he calls his own. His evasive answers made it clear he had neither solutions nor systemic changes to propose.

Gun violence in Chicago has become a popular talking point for both conservatives and liberals, so perhaps it is not surprising that the reporters went this route. But what if they had been a lot bolder, a whole lot earlier? What if our national press would have tag-teamed Obama while he was in office on the role of the US in the Syrian Civil War that has cost nearly 500,000 lives, by some estimates? Or the assassination list and drone killings that have led to countless deaths, civilian and otherwise? Or the president’s record-breaking and inhumane deportation policies? These are just three issues that would have been worth some dogged DC press corps questioning, don’t you think?

In DC, journalists know that if they ask hard-hitting questions of presidents and other government honchos, they might not get another interview with these ratings-boosting personalities. The Chicago “five” knew that there wasn’t going to be another question-and-answer session with Obama as president, so they undertook a more serious round of questions (though they did not, of course, ask the questions we most need answers to).

How can we change the culture of journalism so that asking tough questions is a job requirement, not an anomaly — for local and national reporters alike?

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