Local TV stations granted 7 minutes with president
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WASHINGTON -- Ever since he quit smoking, President Barack Obama has been staving off nicotine cravings by reaching for celery sticks.
He thinks Americans found guilty of helping Mexican drug cartels should be "thrown in jail."
And he has an open invitation to enjoy lemon martinis in Miami.
These are just a few of the exclusive news nuggets to emerge from the White House in recent days.
The new details were not disclosed by the army of White House reporters employed by the country's biggest news media organizations to track Mr. Obama's every move and word.
Instead, as Mr. Obama increasingly keeps the White House press corps at a distance, he has sat for more than a dozen interviews with their colleagues from local TV stations -- with unpredictable and sometimes illuminating results.
One Miami reporter Mr. Obama recently invited to the White House was still so nervous when the interview was over that she stood to leave before removing the wired microphone from her lapel. Mr. Obama called out to stop her. "We don't want a wardrobe malfunction," he said.
An anchor from the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati swiped paper towels embossed with the presidential seal from a White House bathroom, "just to prove that I really was there."
A veteran anchor from Philadelphia's ABC station used the opportunity to grill an irritated-sounding Mr. Obama on the hot topic of the day, telling the president his statements on U.S. military action in Libya had been confusing.
Mr. Obama has made such encounters with local news stations a staple of his communications strategy. Since December, White House aides have hand-picked 13 stations, all hailing from key markets in presidential battleground states, to reward with the biggest "get" in the TV news business: a one-on-one White House interview with the president. An additional interview was granted to Hearst Television's Washington bureau, which serves more than two dozen local stations across the country.
Each reporter is granted seven minutes with the commander in chief.
In March alone, Obama has welcomed interviewers from Charlotte, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh (KDKA Political Editor Jon Delano on March 15), Albuquerque and Norfolk. Before that, invitees came from Richmond, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Tampa, Denver, Des Moines and Columbus, Ohio. And aides say more are coming soon.
In some cases, Mr. Obama had a message he wanted to transmit directly to the people in particular states. It was during a Feb. 16 interview with the Milwaukee station that the public first learned of Mr. Obama's view that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was launching an "assault" on public-sector unions.
He told the Miami reporter that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, was "wrong" to cancel plans for a federally backed high-speed train in the state.
The Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stations made news when Mr. Obama told them that state lawmakers should be leery of adopting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed education cuts.
Statements like these might have been overlooked by White House reporters focused on the churn of Washington news. There was no chance of that happening with the local reporters, whose stations promote these presidential interviews as major news events, sometimes parceled out over several days.
Miami Fox affiliate WSVN led off its 10 p.m. newscast March 18 with anchor Lynn Martinez's interview with Mr. Obama. As images of the presidential seal, the White House and Mr. Obama flashed across the screen and dramatic music played, a baritone announcer declared: "Just ONE Florida station ... Invited to the WHITE House ... Face to face with the commander in chief ... With the questions South Florida wants answered ... A 7 News EXCLUSIVE ... One on one with President Barack Obama."
The interviews, which take place in the White House Map Room -- a less formal setting than the Oval Office -- have allowed Mr. Obama a chance to show his lighter side. He seemed uncharacteristically delighted to discuss his former smoking habit, chuckling when Hearst's Sally Kidd asked him whether the stress of his job "ever makes you want to pick up a cigarette."
Mr. Obama said he wanted to set a good example and didn't want to be dishonest with his daughters. "It's not easy," he confided. "There are certainly days where I've got to grab a lot of celery sticks to make up for that bad habit I gave up."
But if the president expected to play host to a cadre of pliant, star-struck locals ready to do his bidding, he has found instead that many of the reporters and anchors have come ready to make the most of their seven minutes.
For one thing, they don't follow the usual Washington routine of asking predictable questions that often elicit scripted responses. In anticipation of the interview, some of the stations asked their viewers what questions they would like the president to answer.
As a result, Mr. Obama has fielded a number of unexpected queries and has sometimes responded more frankly than national TV viewers might see in a formal news conference.
In his interview with Denver's KUSA, Mr. Obama conceded that many Americans who had hoped he would change Washington have been disappointed in his record so far.
"I don't think there's a sense that I've been successful," he said.
Carol Williams, an anchor at WCPO in Cincinnati, opened her interview with a searing question.
"Mr. President, you have two young daughters, and I have a 19-year-old daughter myself," Ms. Williams said. "What kind of debt and what kind of future will they face if you and Congress don't reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?"
A White House official said many of the local stations had been chosen for interviews because they were market leaders or because their reporters had previously interviewed administration officials and had a relationship with the press office.
First Published March 28, 2011 12:00 am