Presidents don't enjoy a honeymoon period with the White House press corps. But neither do reporters turn on presidents just because their popularity has tanked. Still, that doesn't mean that the relationship is without certain predictable patterns, according to a UCLA-led team of researchers that has closely examined 48 years' worth of press conferences.
"Nothing makes the watchdog bark more readily than a downturn in the economy," said Steven E. Clayman, a UCLA sociologist and lead author of the first systematic look at a wide range of conditions that influence the tenor of White House media relations.
And heaven help the second-term president when both unemployment and interest rates start to mount.
"They face much more vigorous questioning," said John Heritage, also a UCLA sociologist, and co-author of the study, which appears in the February issue of the journal American Sociological Review.
In an attempt to explore long-held stereotypes about the media, Clayman and Heritage led a 16-member team that combed through transcripts of four randomly selected White House news conferences for every year from the beginning of the Eisenhower administration — when the contemporary institution was born — through Clinton's presidency.
Using sophisticated linguistic techniques, the researchers examined reporters' questions for discernable variations across five dimensions of aggressiveness, including directness, presence of an adversarial tone and implied demands for accountability. For instance, the absence of such qualifiers as "I wonder whether" or "I would like to ask" increased a question's "directness" score. Starting a question with the phrase "How could you" instead of "Why did you" counted as a more aggressive call for accountability.
The researchers then scrutinized the context. At what point in the president's term was the press conference being held? What were his ratings in polls? How was the economy fairing? Were the questions about foreign or domestic issues? What about broader historical trends? In all, the UCLA team compared five different aspects of each president's life and times with the five dimensions of vigorous questioning.
"This is first attempt to statistically model the independent influence of a variety of social factors on these news conferences," Clayman said. "Past studies have been broad and impressionistic, but this issue is too important for an impressionistic understanding. As a society, we need to know how our watchdogs are discharging their responsibilities."
Although the UCLA study disproved several myths, one common perception proved true. Despite the hot seat in which President Bush now finds himself with Iraq, reporters proved to be half as likely to be aggressive on foreign issues as on domestic issues.
"The old adage about how politics stops at the water's edge really does have a great deal of truth," Clayman said. "Journalists don't cave in on foreign affairs and military matters, but they do become measurably more restrained."
Also true to stereotype, questioning became more heated during a president's second term. In fact, the press corps was twice as likely to aggressively interrogate presidents during their second term as during the first one, the team found.
"We don't know why this is so, but it stands to reason that by the second term, presidents have had more occasion to commit blunders and to be caught in them," Clayman said.
Even for all the signs of more aggressive questioning during second terms, the team found no evidence of a period when the president could count on being spared.
"Social scientists have long thought that the Washington press corps treats presidents with kid gloves during the early months of an administration, but we didn't find any statistical evidence of a honeymoon period," Heritage said.
However, questioning became clearly more aggressive when clouds started to gather in the country's economic skies. Interestingly, neither changes in the Dow Jones index nor the inflation index seemed to affect the tone of press conferences. But rising unemployment and interest rates packed a big wallop, the study found, with unemployment having the stronger effect. Averaging the results, for every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, there is a 16 percent increase in the likelihood of more aggressive questions. Meanwhile, every 1 percent increase in the prime interest rate brings a 5 percent increase in the odds of greater aggressiveness. And the increased heat was not confined to domestic matters.
"A downturn in the business cycle leads to more aggressive questioning not only on domestic affairs but also on foreign affairs and military matters," Heritage said. "Poor economic performance appears to contaminate a president's image in other areas, leading journalists to become generally more aggressive."
As a president's approval ratings dropped in the polls, he was — as long suspected — subjected to more aggressive questioning, the study determined. But the affect was not statistically significant when considered in conjunction with economic conditions.
"Although unpopular presidents are questioned somewhat more aggressively than popular presidents, objective economic conditions appear to be the driving force behind the grilling," Clayman said.
The team, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, took heart from this particular finding.
"Journalists do not appear to be influenced by popular perceptions of presidential performance," Heritage said. "They are more attentive to the real state of the nation, growing more aggressive as economic conditions worsen."
Although White House journalists have grown more vigorous over time, the researchers found little evidence of gratuitous aggressiveness, and on foreign affairs, journalists remain relatively deferential to the president.
"We're trying to understand if journalists are aggressive at the appropriate moments," Clayman said. "Now we can point to a systematic study that shows that, for the most part, they're getting aggressive at times when citizens would want them to be. At least in the domestic affairs arena, journalists are being reasonably good watchdogs."
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