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The story behind my Obama press conference question

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WASHINGTON -- I asked President Obama what turned out to be a provocative question at his press conference on Wednesday night -- well, it was his answer that was really provocative -- about the arrest of noted Harvard African-American studies Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

I asked,"What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?"

Obama's answer included a soundbite picked up by scores of outlets, whether print, TV, radio or on the Web. Said Obama, "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

Obama's answer also triggered a storm of questions to me -- by other reporters, readers e-mailing me and commenting on my blog about how and why I came to ask about Gates.

No conspiracy, folks.

When President Obama called on me, he had no idea what I would be asking. I had not written or blogged about the Gates incident, so no one in the White House had any clue that I was particularly interested in Obama's reaction.

I got a call from the White House press office about 6:30 p.m. confirming I was indeed going to show up at the 8 p.m. press conference. I was told I "may" get a question from the president. No one asked me -- directly or indirectly -- about what I may be asking. No one from the White House tried to plant any question.

By calling a prime time news conference, Obama got a chance to read a statement at the beginning pushing Congress to pass his health-care reform proposals.

But the White House did not set this up as a health-care-only press conference. There was no mandate on reporters who attended to ask questions about health care.

Ten journalists asked questions, including me; seven had health-care questions, three asked about other topics. The Sun-Times and Tribune Co. reporters both got questions -- the pairing of the rivals was by White House design.

Obama gave me the last question. I had no control over the timing. There was no chance for a follow-up. If I was called on earlier in the press conference, I may have asked about health care. I thought it was appropriate at the end to bring up another matter in the news--the Gates arrest. I would have posed the same question to President Bush.

Some saw a plot because I read my question. I do write them down for a White House press conference. No plot. I want to be concise.

25 Comments

Your question has opened up so many old racial wounds from the past here in Greater Boston. What a mess! Next time please think before you ask!

I think that your choice of question for President Obama was a huge mistake. First, the focus of the event was supposed to be on giving America a workable healthcare system. Your question was off the subject, and shifted the focus of the entire event to another subject. Surely you could have found another occasion to put him on the spot.

As I see it, he was tired, his mind really focussed on questions relating to the healthcare legislation, and then--out of left field, and totally unrelated to the subject of the evening you came out with your question. I'm not surprised that his response was not as carefully thought out, as most of his responses usually are.

I think you owe him an apology. You were shooting for the limelight, and you got it. But it doesn't say much for your sense of the fitness of things.

Unfortunately, the surprise question has cast a pall over the Obama's health plans especially as they affect many who feel the Gates story has more to do about him than about the officer. Gates was offended that a police officer did not recognize him, that he wanted to see his identification, that he wanted him to step outside...requests that are all part of a police officer's routine. Gates got combative and his actions lead to his arrest.

Whenever they talk about the end of President Obama's popularity with middle Americans, this press conference will come up over and over again. And of course, video of you asking that question will be replayed over and over again. You will be known as the reporter who asked "the question".

Hi Lynn. I'm not sure why you would ask the question you did - given the importance of the health care issue, but you did and so c'est la vie. Anyway, the real problem here appears to be the venting frustrations of a lifetime (on the part the Professor and of this country in general) when it comes to racial profiling, and the somewhat understandable heavy-handedness (until he's sure he's not in the presence of a potentially dangerous situation) of the police sergeant involved in this event. Perhaps the Professor should have taken a deep breath and realized what the incident would have been like if there had been an interrupted break-in at his rented house, and perhaps the police sergeant should now look at his "expertise and training" in the field of racial profiling to see where it lacks the method of dealing with situations where these pent-up frustrations erupt. By the way, having seen Sergeant Crowley's smirk when asked about Obama's comments as he said "I didn't vote for the guy", I think the RNC committee in charge of using race as a wedge has their new potential star for the 2010 and 2012 election cycles - "James the Cop".

"Obama gave me the last question. I had no control over the timing. There was no chance for a follow-up. If I was called on earlier in the press conference, I may have asked about health care. I thought it was appropriate at the end to bring up another matter in the news--the Gates arrest."

Oh, come on now.

Your "question" was designed to torpedo the President's presentation on health care reform for all the tactical reasons you gave -- where else ? -- at the end of your explanation above.
You were manipulating for a headline and sensation.
It was the old "do-you-still-beat-your-wife" question.
You KNEW he had no firsthand knowledge about the incident, and time was limited for him to properly respond.
I covered politics for 30 years and know the "gotcha" method and the kind of "reporter" that uses it.
There's a "mood" among ordinary folk now who are trying to believe a man when he's sincere -- especially if it's the President. We wanted to hear about health care reform. And, wouldn't you know? Just when you thought you'd stuck it to him, the ol' Dow bulls into 9,000?! And John Stewart is the most trusted journalist?!
Ah, well, gravity will continue to do its work with the aging journocracy.

Just read those hips!

Concise enough for you?

No need to explain your question. It will make it seem as though it was planned. Personally, I knew nothing of the Gates' incident and I find that more of a travesty than you asking the question.

Eventually, it was going to come out and you brought it to the fore-front in the media at the Obama press conference.

Thanks.

By the way, I didn't appreciate the gentleman who asked a question out of trun when the president called on someone else. That was extremely rude! As President Obama told him, "That was NOT nice!"

Ms. Sweet, you would have gotten the opportunity to ask follow-up question(s) if people would show respect for the office not jump up and ask questions out of turn, or when NOT CALLED ON!

I hope President Obama remembers him and not make the same mistake again.

The president and his staff had planned enough time for your questions. He know you and that is why he didn't mind being honest in his assessment of the wrecthed ordeal Mr. Henry Lewis Gates went through.

Sorry that happen to you because when your name was called, and you stood up, I am thinking what is Lynn going to ask?

Again, thanks!!

Lynn--no one can design another person's conscience but I surely hope sometime down the road you and others in your profession realize what a terrible disservice you have done in not properly vetting this man who is currently POTUS.

I guess you don't want to print anything you don't agree with. My comment that your question and the President's answer is going to cause him irreparable harm with the middle class voters must have struck a nerve.

I don't believe you and have lost all respect for you!

Lynn,

You asked a GREAT question. Whether intentional or not, you revealed BO's racist heritage and hate toward America which continues to get revealed over time.

He easily & naturally revealed his contempt for the police & what he views as an America that victimizes him and others "like him".

I thought it was FANTASTIC and continue to enjoy & love your work. Your investigative reporting, last year especially regarding his pay for play, was terrific!

Keep it up! :)

Lynne,
I have know idea who you are. I know nothing about you but I have to say if I was the President and I just spent an hour discussing Health Care (by the way cost lives every day and he has been working on this very serious issue for years an issue that is bankrupting the country if nothing else)and you asked me that question (keeping in mind you represent the country when you ask a question in that setting)I would have politely asked you if you had been paying attention at all tonight and then said good night. I know one thing you would have never made it through St Charles Catholic School with those listening skills.

I am a caucasian woman...not that it matters, or maybe it does. When I heard about the arrest, I thought..gee, how did this happen. This is such outdated OLD behavior. Strange behavior by the cop who is an "educator" of racial profilism. Haven't we grown beyond such antics in our society. When, pray tell, will we GROW UP in America!!! REALLY!!! And, I think it was glorious that you brought it up...though, maybe not too bright. More stupid people can fight over the issue now.

When, pray tell, will we GROW UP in America!!! REALLY!!! And, I think it was glorious that you brought it up...though, maybe not too bright. More stupid people can fight over the issue now.

Dear Ms. Sweet,
Can't say as I would agree with you on any of the issues of the day but wanted to show you one of my answers to those who would revile and blame you for doing your job; the job which is woefully lacking in journalism these days.

It's time ... time for the honeymoon to be over. It's not your fault, in fact you may be among the first wave of reporters to begin to actually question the President; you may eventually be viewed as a role model if there are any true reporter's hearts still beating in the press rooms of the U.S.

However the chips fall for you in regard to that, here is how I would answer people who blame you for sidetracking the discussion on National Healthcare:

It was always the president's choice to answer or to deflect or to outright say 'it's not my business', 'it's a local matter', 'I'll look into it', 'ask me tomorrow', or 'stay on point'.

No matter what the perceived or possible consequences of any of those answers might have been, he always had those choices irt what to say or not say.

He made his own choice. For what ever reason, he chose to give in to his own ill-informed feelings and anger by answering the question in almost the worst way he could have.

You did your job. And in a normal world, you would have (maybe you did) realized what a score you made and what a 'scoop' you scored. :)

You are neither hero nor villain; you, are a reporter.

This is so sad, and rather typical.
Since you asked a question that threw everything else into the dumpster, the talking heads are saying "Obama shouldn't have commented on something he knew nothing about"; or "he shouldn't have commented on a local matter;" or "See? We knew he was against us good white Ameicans!"
Since then, there has been more talk about Obama, "foot in mouth disease", "beer" Prof. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley, than there has been about what's going on in Irag, Iran and Afganistan. So now we see where your priorities are.
What to go Lynn! Maybe Obama would NOT have said ANYTHING about the incident. But NO! YOU had to bring it up. And I'm sorry, not only do I think you would NOT have asked the same question of G.W. Bush...in fact, I KNOW you wouldn't because Bush had as many news conferences in his whole 8 years, than Obama had in his first 3 months.

Theresa,
President Obama shouldn't have commented the way he did especially since he didn't have all the facts at the time of his comments.

How does the president's faux pas translate into any reporter's agenda? Rather NOT reporting on it would be buying into an agenda. Traditionally reporters have been antagonists of those in power, not protagonist apologists. This reporter, Ms. Sweet, did her job as far as I can tell at this moment in time.

Prof. Gates is the president's friend, or so I have read. We may not like what constitutes news these days but in any case, that fact alone makes the story news. It's a logical next step to get the president's view on the situation with his friend. How could she have known the president was not up to the task of making the decision to either deflect or answer appropriately?

By theresa p. on July 31, 2009 10:49 AM
This is so sad, and rather typical.
Since you asked a question that threw everything else into the dumpster, the talking heads are saying "Obama shouldn't have commented on something he knew nothing about"; or "he shouldn't have commented on a local matter;" or "See? We knew he was against us good white Ameicans!"

Since then, there has been more talk about Obama, "foot in mouth disease", "beer" Prof. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley, than there has been about what's going on in Irag, Iran and Afganistan. So now we see where your priorities are.
What to go Lynn! Maybe Obama would NOT have said ANYTHING about the incident. But NO! YOU had to bring it up. And I'm sorry, not only do I think you would NOT have asked the same question of G.W. Bush...in fact, I KNOW you wouldn't because Bush had as many news conferences in his whole 8 years, than Obama had in his first 3 months.

It seems like everybody is to blame except for the President irt almost anything that happens or anything he himself does or approves. This recent incident is only one in a long line ...

So all of this is some reporter's fault? There's enough blame to spread around?

But although there is lots of blame to go around, it doesn't quite get as far around to President Obama as it does to someone or anyone else who happens to be within spreading distance?

Mmm.... So we've moved on from 'it' (whatever it is at any given moment in time) being Bush's fault to 'it' being (for the time being) this reporter's fault?

Really?

Is it always going to be someone else's fault?

I said this previously somewhere else, and it's true here also: I know what I just said must 'read' nastier than I mean it to be, and I actuallydo mean for it to sound a bit sarcastic.... but not directly personally to Theresa or to anyone, but only in regard to this issue in general because it's beginning to border on the silly. It's becoming a syndrome that may or may not have been based in truth at some point in time, but is fast becoming just one of many excuses with interchangeable blamees.

He's the prez.

He's a big boy.

He has to start taking responsibilty for his own actions and/or lack of thought and experience; and his supporters must start to let him do that.

He has actually made the overture into this new reality himself; he says, "Because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,"

I hope his supporters do not sabotage his fledgling efforts at this.


. . Also, contrary to what reporters themselves and others seem to think these days, it's not a reporter's job, it's not in their job description, and they don't get paid and they don't get special considerations under the law to worry about possibly being the one who hijacks a whole conference by the questions they ask - no matter what the conference was supposed to be about.

That's what reporters do ... they ask questions. Sometimes off the wall questions, sometimes out of the blue questions.

Seems they get the best most revealing answers that way. Too bad more of them do not seem to understand or accept that part of their job.


By theresa p. on July 31, 2009 10:49 AM
This is so sad, and rather typical.
Since you asked a question that threw everything else into the dumpster, the talking heads are saying "Obama shouldn't have commented on something he knew nothing about"; or "he shouldn't have commented on a local matter;" or "See? We knew he was against us good white Ameicans!"
Since then, there has been more talk about Obama, "foot in mouth disease", "beer" Prof. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley, than there has been about what's going on in Irag, Iran and Afganistan. So now we see where your priorities are.
What to go Lynn! Maybe Obama would NOT have said ANYTHING about the incident. But NO! YOU had to bring it up. And I'm sorry, not only do I think you would NOT have asked the same question of G.W. Bush...in fact, I KNOW you wouldn't because Bush had as many news conferences in his whole 8 years, than Obama had in his first 3 months.

I think the question was excellent for many reasons.

1) An astute reporter realized she has rights as free media to ask it
2) Obama without a teleprompter talks "stupidly" without thinking first
3) Despite having said he did not have all the facts, he stood by his racist, hate-filled buddy, Mr. "White men are devils" Gates
4) We find out Mr. Gates past
5) We find out the cop has a sterling record of leading minority outreach in the community
6) No one pointed out race except Mr. Gates
7) The police department, including black police officers not only stand by Mr. Crowley, but Officer Lashley wrote a direct letter contradicting Professor Gates.
8) One black office said she would not vote for Obama again.

By far, the biggest "teachable moment" here was for Mr. Obama to shut up about personal friends run-in with the law when clearly they have a history of hating whites themselves. But whats a man to do after attending a church of racist hatred for more than 20yrs? I guess he didn't know those facts either? The racist liberation theology church of "god d___ America?"

Once again, by some of the negative comments made here, most people have not "HEARD" or read, all of Mr. Obama's remarks...they take out of context and "hear what they want to hear" depending on THEIR OWN BIAS!!!! READ what REALLY WAS SAID before you comment, less, what you say is basically a reflection of YOUR OWN BIAS!!! I am so sick and tired of STUPID AMERICANS. WHen are we going to Become more evolved, more intelligent. For once, we DO have an intelligent, HUMAN president in office, -how refreshing that he can be so HONEST! He is HUMAN! GEE. And so are we. If this country "goes down" it will be because we are our own worst enemies. Give LOVE a chance...and stop hating so much!

Our President acted Humanly, and admitted it.
Bravo for you....Mr. Obama. Thank God, there is some intelligence in the White House.

As for some of these comments posted here, well, I think people have not Heard or READ the whole story! Folks often take things out of context to meet their own needs, usually their passion for hate. Grow Up America!

Rebecca, calm down. I did read all of President Obama's comments. I watched the video of his comments several times. The fact is, you can read his full remarks for yourself, but the fact is he himself said he did not have all the facts at the time he made his remarks, as a result he made his remarks based on information that was incorrect according to the actual police report.

And to this day I have not seen any proof the police report is wrong, incorrect, or falsified. There are questions to be asked but so far it's all just speculation and nothing has been said about the report being false or incorrect. And with President Obama involved, we can be sure if racial profiling was actually proved, and if the police report had actually been proven to have been falisified, we would have heard about it.


Rebecca on August 3, 2009 12:33 PM said:
Once again, by some of the negative comments made here, most people have not "HEARD" or read, all of Mr. Obama's remarks...they take out of context and "hear what they want to hear" depending on THEIR OWN BIAS!!!! READ what REALLY WAS SAID before you comment, less, what you say is basically a reflection of YOUR OWN BIAS!!! I am so sick and tired of STUPID AMERICANS. WHen are we going to Become more evolved, more intelligent. For once, we DO have an intelligent, HUMAN president in office, -how refreshing that he can be so HONEST! He is HUMAN! GEE. And so are we. If this country "goes down" it will be because we are our own worst enemies. Give LOVE a chance...and stop hating so much!

Here is the President's main remark: "Now, I've -- I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

An annoying fact here is that everything the president said after, "not having been there and not seeing all the facts" was speculation (according to his own admission of not having seen all the facts) based on his own personal feelings and pov rather than on fact. +shrug+

In other words, just because the policeman was white and the possible perp was black does not mean the policeman had profiled the pp or that he acted stupidly. So with just the 'facts' he had at the time (facts which contradict the police report which has not been officially called into question) ... with just the 'dubious and incomplete facts' he had at the time, seems to me President Obama was reacting more to a white man, policing than to any valid actual facts of the particular situation.

The bottom line is, when he said the police acted stupidly ... what basis did he actually have for saying that when he didn't have the actual facts of the case?

Historic and proven racial profiling and bias of past instances do not count as a good reason for the POTUS himself to buy into a false pronouncement irt an open case about which he had few actual facts. Refreshing? The only thing that might be seen as refreshing about this is finally a black man stuck it to 'the man' publically. +shrug+ It's still a false stick, but seems to have been very satisfying for many people just the same.

I do not say that in a smart alecky way, I do not say it irreverently or offhand. It's not my original or personal pronouncement. I came to that realization, slowly, unwillingly kicking and screaming (in my head), due to what many of President's Obama's supporters have said to me and on other sites.

One person, irt a different situation with similar facts, even said something along the lines of 'how does that feel buddy' now the shoe is on the other foot. Sadly, 'now the shoe is on the other foot' we may be almost back to square one irt racial relations - except now the ones unfairly and without regard to facts will be white or policeman in general - whether they are white or not. :(


Rebecca on August 3, 2009 12:33 PM said:
Once again, by some of the negative comments made here, most people have not "HEARD" or read, all of Mr. Obama's remarks...they take out of context and "hear what they want to hear" depending on THEIR OWN BIAS!!!! READ what REALLY WAS SAID before you comment, less, what you say is basically a reflection of YOUR OWN BIAS!!! I am so sick and tired of STUPID AMERICANS. WHen are we going to Become more evolved, more intelligent. For once, we DO have an intelligent, HUMAN president in office, -how refreshing that he can be so HONEST! He is HUMAN! GEE. And so are we. If this country "goes down" it will be because we are our own worst enemies. Give LOVE a chance...and stop hating so much!

Rachel said: As for some of these comments posted here, well, I think people have not Heard or READ the whole story!

SilverKait replies: Excellent point, Rachel. Mmm.... Just what I've been saying the president did. Here is the President's main remark: "Now, I've -- I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts. . ."

But unlike what the president did, I am trying to stick with the facts of that particular moment (can't speak for everyone else). The facts as known by the president according to the president at that moment in time when he made his remarks. All I am doing is pointing out what the president himself said.

As you can see above, at the moment in time when the President first made his remarks (before he backtracked and couched it in high toned rationalizations irt the totally valid history of racial discrimination), at that particular moment he made his remarks, he himself said he did not have all the facts.

If what the president himself said is true, and the police report actually backs him up on the fact he did not have all the facts at that time... if what he said is true; then he surely did act humanly. But he did not act presidentially or intelligently.

How can I say that? I didn't say it. Okay, I did say it, but ... wait; here's what I mean:

The president had "not Heard or READ the whole story!" at the time he made his remarks, including this one: "the Cambridge police acted stupidly . . ."

Everything which followed the statement he himself made in regard to his ignorance of the facts, is/was speculation based on something other than fact.

In and of itself it was no big deal. The fact that the POTUS made a whole alleged teaching moment out of an incident in which there was no actual racial bias or profiling is what made it a big deal.

Is there a lot to learn, and are there actual teaching moments happening everyday? I'd venture to say there sure are. But, so far, the facts seem to show that the incident with Prof Gates was not one of those.

The facts might change irt the police actions on that day. If they do (or if they have), I'll change my opinion on whether or not the police acted stupidly or in a racially biased way.

But, even if the facts change irt the particulars of the case, the president still made a hasty statement before having all the facts. That won't change, and your statement will still be more applicable to the president than to me or almost anyone who has commented here so far. (:o/


By Rachel on August 3, 2009 12:37 PM
Our President acted Humanly, and admitted it.
Bravo for you....Mr. Obama. Thank God, there is some intelligence in the White House.

As for some of these comments posted here, well, I think people have not Heard or READ the whole story! Folks often take things out of context to meet their own needs, usually their passion for hate. Grow Up America!

In a world dominated by carefully scripted TelePrompter speeches and lawyerly spokespeople, how refreshing. A professional journalist working on her feet, going with her instincts. That is of course how all the great stories are discovered. President Obama's off the cuff response proves he is human and not totally a creature of polls and predetermined policy positions. I like it. The ensuing bruhaha has been good for America and encouraged us all to figure out who we are and how we can swallow our pride and live together in peace. Thanks for your courage to do your job.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on July 23, 2009 8:52 PM.

Obama says cops "acted stupidly" in Gates case was the previous entry in this blog.

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