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Study: Desperate for attention, White House reporters abandon tough questions

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Politics,White House,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

A groundbreaking new study of White House press conferences over the past 23 years reveals that the events are in a death spiral, especially under President Obama. Reporters, desperate to keep the press conferences alive, have switched to asking easy questions in a bid to coax the president to host more of them, the study says.

Noting that the days when reporters like Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas pestered President Reagan are long gone, the study in the authoritative journal American Politics Research said that adversarial questions have become rare as presidents have rebelled at them.

"The press want to encourage presidents to hold more of these direct exchanges to benefit their own reputations and media's prestige," said the study provided to Secrets. "The press will be less adversarial in these rare meetings to encourage more of them."

The trend started with former President Clinton as he, former President George W. Bush and Obama curtailed press conferences and especially cut back on solo meetings with the press. Joint press conferences generally feature the president with a foreign leader and are considered easier to handle, said the study. In his first term, Obama held 38 joint and 27 solo press conferences, according to the study.

"Press conference questions have become less adversarial and ... solo press conferences have been held less frequently since the George H.W. Bush administration," said the analysis from Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha of the University of North Texas.

And despite the softer questions, press conferences like the one conducted by Obama on Tuesday are fast dying out. In fact, the study found that Obama held the fewest press conferences of any first-term presidency since Reagan.

"Obama may signal a new nadir in presidential press conferences and, perhaps, a shift away from holding fewer press conferences altogether, a fear shared by journalists today," said the study.

That could jeopardize the media influence of White House correspondents, especially TV reporters, who need interactions with the president to get on the evening news.