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Historical Trends in Questioning Presidents, 1953-2000


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (grant #SES-0112221) and the LeRoy Neiman Center for the Study of American Culture at UCLA. Additional support was provided by an outstanding team of research assistants: Hanna Abner, Tamara Black, Carleen Curley, Amira Day, Hedy Javahery, Marian Katz, Wendy Klein, Min Lee, Seung-Hee Lee, Parisa Leviadin, Lisa McConnell, Shawna Miller, Julie Peggar, Danielle Pillet-Shore, Shannon Seibert, Sachiko Takita, and Nancy Yuen. We are grateful for feedback given by the anonymous reviewers and by colleagues who heard various components of the paper presented in 2004 at conferences of the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, and the National Communication Association.

Steven E. Clayman is professor of sociology and communication studies at UCLA, and is coauthor (with John Heritage) of The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air.

Marc N. Elliott is senior statistician for the RAND Corporation.

John Heritage is professor of sociology at UCLA.

Laurie L. McDonald is senior statistical research programmer for the RAND Corporation.


This article develops a system for analyzing the aggressiveness of journalists' questions to public figures and applies that system to a sample of presidential news conferences from Eisenhower through Clinton. The primary objective is to use the phenomenon of aggressive questioning as a window into the White House press corps and its evolving relationship to the presidency. Ten features of question design are examined as indicators of four basic dimensions of aggressiveness: (1) initiative, (2) directness, (3) assertiveness, and (4) adversarialness. The results reveal significant trends for all dimensions, all indicating a long-term decline in deference to the president and the rise of a more vigorous and at times adversarial posture. While directness has increased gradually over time and is relatively insensitive to the immediate sociopolitical context, initiative, assertiveness, and adversarialness are more volatile and sensitive to local conditions. The volatile dimensions rose from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, declined from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, and rose again at century's end. Possible factors contributing to these trends, and their broader ramifications for the evolving relationship between the news media and the presidency, are also discussed.