Do Women Reporters Ask Better Questions?

At town hall meetings, President Obama likes to alternate by gender the questions he takes: "Girl boy; girl, boy," as he says. Presidential press conferences are another matter. At last night's prime-time event, it wasn't until the evening was half-way through that the president got around to calling on a female reporter: on of three women whose questions he answered out of a total of 10 reporters he called on. And the reporters called on are white.

To be fair to Obama, this has more to do with the color and character of mainstream media than it does with anything else. When you've got a big nigh, as Obama did, you're going to make sure you take the questions of the reporters from the two big wire services (AP and Reuters), and the three broadcast news divisions (NBC, CBS and ABC). And all those outlets sent white guys to represent them.  If the complexity of the topic at hand means that you only take 10 questions total, five are already taken by the aforementioned white guys.

But what made last night so interesting was that the men's questions were quite predictable, while the women's were anything but.

Obama wasn't truly challenged by a question until he called on Christi Parsons of the Los Angeles Times, who questioned the transparency of the president's health-care reform process:

CHRISTI PARSONS: During the campaign, you promised that health-care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN. And that hasn't happened. And your administration recently turned down a request, from a watchdog group, seeking a list of health-care executives who have visited the White House to talk about health-care reform.

Also the TARP inspector general recently said that your White House is withholding too much information on the bank bailouts. So my question for you is, are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, on the list of health-care executives who visited us, most of the time, you guys have been in there taking pictures. So it hasn't been a secret. And my understanding is, we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But frankly these have mostly been at least photo sprays, where you could see who was participating.

With respect to all the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kickoff event was here, on C- SPAN. And at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings. Senate Finance is having a meeting. The House is having a meeting. If they want those to be on C-SPAN, then I would welcome it. But I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.

And the last question was with respect to TARP. I -- let me take a look at what exactly they say we have not provided. I think that we've provided much greater transparency than existed prior to our administration coming in. It is a big program. I don't know exactly what's been requested. I'll find out, and I will have an answer for you.

Parsons got the president to make a little news there. Seems that he had warded off a law suit from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington just that day, by sending the government watchdog group the list it had been requesting.

Next he called on Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News, who threw an excellent curveball about regulating banks and firms involved in risky lending schemes and financial instruments:

JULIANNA GOLDMAN:  Thank you, Mr. President. You've said the recent bank profits indicate that there's been no sense of remorse on Wall Street for risky behavior, so we haven't seen a change in culture there.

Would -- do you think that your administration needs to be taking a harder line on -- with Wall Street? And also, would you consider going a step further than your regulatory reform proposals and supporting a fee on risky activities that go beyond traditional lending?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We were on the verge of a complete financial meltdown, and the reason was because Wall Street took extraordinary risks with other people's money.

They were peddling loans that they knew could never be paid back. They were flipping those loans and leveraging those loans, and higher and higher mountains of debt were being built on loans that were fundamentally unsound. And all of us now are paying the price.

Now, I believe it was the right thing to do -- as unpopular as it is, it was the right thing for us to do, to step in to make sure that the financial system did not collapse, because things would be even worse today had those steps not been taken. It originated under the Bush administration. We continued it because, you know, whether you're on the left or the right, if you talked to economists they said that this could have the kinds of consequences that would -- dropped us into a deep depression, and not simply a very severe recession.

Now, one of the success stories of the past six months is that we really have seen a stabilization in the financial system. It's not where it needs to be, but people are no longer talking about the financial system falling off a cliff. We've stepped away from the brink. And that's important, because what it means is there are a lot of companies right now that can go into the marketplace and borrow money to fund inventory, fund payroll, and that will help the economy grow as a whole.

The problem is, now that the financial system has bounced back, what you're seeing is that banks are starting to make profits again.

Some of them have paid back the TARP money that they received, the bank bailout money that they received. And we expect more of them to pay this back.

That's a good thing. And we also think it's a good thing that they're profitable again, because if they're profitable that means that they have reserves in place and they can lend. And this is America, so if you're profitable in the free-market system, then you benefit.

But what we haven't seen, I think, is the kind of change in behavior and practices on Wall Street that would ensure that we don't find ourselves in a fix again where we've got to bail out these folks and -- while they're taking huge risks and taking huge bonuses.

So what do I think we need to do? We've got to pass financial regulatory reform. And, you know, this is an example of where folks say, "Well, you know, should the Obama administration be taking on too much?"

The fact of the matter is that if we don't pass financial regulatory reform, then banks are going to go back to the same things that they were doing before. In some ways it could be worse, because now they know that the federal government may think that they're too big to fail, and so if they're unconstrained they could take even more risks.

And so there are a number of elements of financial regulatory reform. With respect to compensation, I'd like to think that people would feel a little remorse and feel embarrassed and would not get million-dollar or multi-million-dollar bonuses. But if shame does not work, then I think one proposal that I've put forward is to make sure that at least shareholders of these companies know what their executives are being compensated. And that may force some reductions.

For banks that are still receiving taxpayer assistance , we have a set of rules that gives us some control on reducing unwarranted compensation.

And in terms of the last point that you made, which is the possibility of fees for transactions that we want to discourage, that is one of the ideas that is going to be working its way through the process.

I think at minimum what we want to do is to make sure that to the extent the federal government is going to have to be a backstop, just like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, what everybody's familiar with, FDIC -- the reason that when you put your deposits in your bank, you can have confidence that they're insurance, that's paid for through bank fees -- we may need to make sure that there is a similar mechanism in place for some of these other far-out transactions; so if you guys want to do them, then you got to put something into the kitty to make sure that if you screw up, it's not taxpayer dollars that have to pay for it, but it's dollars coming out of your profits.

Wow. Some pretty interesting news.  Obama wants to create an FDIC-like insurance system for the institutions that finance tightrope deals.

But the most interesting news of the night was yet to come, when Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times asked Obama to comment on the racially-charged arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

[Lynn Sweet's question begins at 6:46]

LYNN SWEET: Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I -- I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here.

I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place.

So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so -- (laughter) -- it probably wouldn't happen.

(Chuckling.) But let's say my old house in Chicago -- (laughter) -- here I'd get shot. (Laughter.) But so far, so good. They're -- they're -- they're reporting. The police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate. What happens?

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words. But my understanding is -- is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

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.

And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportion ately. That's just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and oftentime for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be.

All right? Thank you, everybody.

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