President Donald Trump’s recent news conference pronouncements involving allegations by federal-government whistle blower reminded me of my growing experience in Missouri’s statehouse by public officials seeking to avoid awkward questions from reporters.
Trump’s Sept. 25 news conference came immediately after the White House released a transcript of a phone conversation with the Ukrainian president in which Trump sought a Ukrainian investigation into a potential Democratic candidate for president.
The news conference began with lengthy and rambling statements that covered the economy and foreign-policy issues as well as Ukraine. I’ve experienced some Missouri governors starting a news conference with long statements on issues of little or no news significance.
It’s caused me to wonder if there’s a hope it will distract us from asking the most important questions or lead to less before the news conference is terminated.
When Trump eventually took questions, only three were about the president’s discussion with the Ukraine President. Eight were on completely different subjects.
It struck me that Trump was able to divert questioning away from the explosive issue by picking reporters which obvious interest in different issues. Then, the news conference abruptly ended as reporters seeking recognition for other questions were ignored.
I sympathized with those reporters seeking more probing questions.
Increasingly in Missouri’s statehouse we have encountered governors and other state leaders holding what I’ve come to term “media moments.”
Trump actually has been polite in shutting off further questioning by saying to reporters “thank you.”
In Missouri, recent governors and a few other high officials have shut off questioning with a public information officer stepping in to loudly proclaim “time for one more question.”
That, of course, just incites us to immediately attempt further questions after the “one more question” pronouncement.
It worked, briefly. But now, the subject of the news conference just turns around and walks away.
That approach is so different from years ago when governors allowed news conferences to continue until almost every reporter’s question was answered. I confess, many days a governor took questions for so long that I would hope our colleagues would shut up.
Yet, even after lengthy news conferences, governors of the past sometimes would stick around for individual interviews on local topics or less formal conversations with us.
It reflected what I sensed was a passionate drive by governors of the past to do all they could to help reporters fully understand an issue and the administration’s vision.
But now there are so many alternatives for communicating with the public without troublesome questions from reporters that I fear we’re viewed by some we cover as the enemy to be manipulated and cut short.
While the public loses from that restricted access, so do the public officials we cover.
Many times when I’ve questioned a public official outside of a controlled setting, that public official learned something from my questions like a potential avenue of criticism or a new wrinkle to an issue.
And, sometimes, aggressive questioning helped the public official better formulate a defense or become more comfortable not hiding behind communications staff.
When I started covering Missouri’s statehouse, I quickly discovered that my aggressive interviewing style for which I gained a reputation actually helped develop sources of long-term value.
While some were upset by my adversarial interviewing style, my most important and candid sources of lasting value appreciated that approach.
I think they realized they were benefiting from blunt questions in both learning about potential adversaries and their arguments. And sometimes, I’d raised aspects about an issue they had not considered.
I confess, I knew some of those sources were taking advantage of me in gaining information. It’s a reflection of incestuous relationships that reporters can develop with our closest sources.
But, the public benefited not just in the stories that I produced and from the much deeper understanding I gained from those sources about how government and politics really work.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).