News Conferences…Hate ‘Em…Need ‘Em
I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about this whole concept of news conferences after tennis star Naomi Osaka walked away from the French Open rather than face reporters at mandatory sessions. She revealed that for her news conferences are stressful, counter productive and amount to a legitimate mental health issue for her.
As someone who’s covered a bajillion news conferences over the past 47 years, I hate them too. Oh sure, they’re a necessary evil because it’s not practical to give reporters individual interviews in most cases, but sometimes they can amount to public showcases for individuals astute at the fine art of bullshitting, self-aggrandizement, lack of preparedness or pugnacious discourtesy…and that’s just on the part of those staging the event, let alone some journalists.
Perhaps the worst so-called news conference I ever attended lasted less than 30 seconds. We were called to Cleveland to hear from boxer Mike Tyson after he was released from serving time on a rape rap. He was to discuss his return to the ring. After cooling our heels for quite awhile in the bowels of what was known at the time as Gund Arena Tyson finally came on stage, in a half-whisper said he was glad to fight again and walked off. No questions, no nothing. Well…almost nothing. Wasn’t worth the plane ticket or the price of the crappy hot dog I ate while waiting for the former heavyweight chump.
So yes. That’s a clear case of a useless news conference because the very word “conference” infers a dialogue. This was barely a monologue.
Then there are the news conferences where some reporters appear to want to “share” knowledge rather than gather it. If you’re in the biz you know these people. They take an eternity to let the speaker know how much they already think they know about the subject before finally spilling a question.
On the auto beat there’s one longtime reporter whom I won’t name who has gained a decades-long reputation for such endless preambles. Indeed, at an event in conjunction with the New York Auto Show in the early 2000’s two executives of a major automaker played the roles of police officer and perpetrator to show off a new police cruiser.
They staged a fake chase in front of the press corps then suddenly stopped. Fake cop tells fake perp to put up his hands. Fake perp says, “no problem. I’ll do anything you want. It would be better than enduring a question from (reporter). The guy was in the crowd and enjoyed the notoriety. The rest of us got a good laugh. Comedy based in truth always hits home best.
One time I was actually the main speaker at a news conference and gained instant empathy for those who regularly stand at the business end of reporters’ questions. It happened in the 1990’s when I was one of three pool reporters for the in-prison arraignment of James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bombing perpetrator Terry Nichols.
I was joined by reporters from the Associated Press and a local newspaper. When it came time to decide who would brief the rest of the press I was drafted because as the the print guys said, “you’re CNN, TV. You don’t mind facing the cameras.” No, I don’t mind cameras. It’s people who give me the creeps. I gamely gave the top line facts of the proceeding then in a case of “back at ya,” I tossed it over the print guys for “more of the details.” This was not planned by anyone…but me. I was always a decent ad libber on camera.
Truthfully, I ended up feeling exhilarated after fielding some questions and not saying something stupid or wrong. It was a kick being quoted by CBS and others but I’d rather be the inquisitor.
Honestly, I hate to ask my best question during news conferences, especially if it was based on some information I had in hand that would give my place a competitive edge on a previously unexplored angle. Why give it to everyone else? In that case I would try to find a way to ask the question privately, but you can’t always count on that and you need an answer so sometimes you have no choice.
Look, I feel for Ms. Osaka if facing the media is stressful and unpleasant. A person’s mental health is a serious matter and should not be downplayed.
Unfortunately, professional sports is actually a form of show business where athletes’ stages are the field, pitch, court or ice. Tickets are sold and fan loyalties are stoked in part by news stories. That all can generate the millions athletes can reap from prize money, bonuses and endorsements. In other words, there’s tremendous demand for what an athlete has to say, even if it’s not especially enlightening.
For journalists, direct quotes offer depth, context and perspective to a story which adds to a richer experience for their readers or audience.
Perhaps some of the anxiety for those thrust into situations that demand presence at news conferences could be allayed by counseling or league-sponsored media training that includes realistic mock sessions using actual journalists. When I conduct media training sessions the strategy is to always put the trainees through an even tougher experience than they might actually face. Kinda like swinging a heavy bat in the on-deck circle so your real bat feels lighter when you’re facing a fast ball.
That, or know what you would be getting into before you decide to become a professional athlete or other high-profile profession, and choose another path to avoid the news conference blood sport.