What are press conferences for?

We know what they are. The anodyne Wikipedia definition is clear enough:

A news conference or press conference is a media event in which newsmakers invite journalists to hear them speak and, most often, ask questions.

One could argue that in the Age of Newspapers, press conferences provided real value to the public. After all, most households once subscribed to a single paper with its own staff of writers, editors and reporters. This made it imperative for each news organization to send their own reporter get quotes, ask questions, and file a unique story by deadline. It wasn’t redundant to have forty guys covering the same presser, because most readers had access to a single source.

It’s hard to say exactly when this began to change, but television certainly played a part. On January 25th 1961, US president John F Kennedy became the first president to hold a live televised press conference. Kennedy’s decision to read a prepared statement on the Congo and take questions from assembled reporters on TV wasn’t just a public service; as the 1960 debate with Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon demonstrated, Kennedy looked awesome on television, and that apparently mattered a great deal to voters. The press conference was a way for the president to be calm, assertive, knowledgeable, decisive, presidential.

Luckily for the press, this wasn’t a one-sided deal. In return for offering a potentially flattering platform to public officials, press conferences gave reporters an opportunity to ask prodding, uncomfortable questions, catch their subject in a lie, and try and best represent the views and concerns of reading/viewing public. The press corps got to play the part of the loyal (and rarely not-so-loyal) opposition. Press conferences became an elaborate game of one-up-man-ship, a quid pro quo arrangement which allowed democracy’s major players to look good doing their jobs.

This isn’t to say they were suddenly no longer a means to hold public officials accountable, but any actual truth to emerge was accidental to the main event: the Performance.

These Performances were, for a long time, justified because they still ostensibly provided the public with valuable information and kept public officials accountable. For a long time the media were still regarded as Fourth Estate, the last line of accountability from those in power. But with the increasing politicization and stratification of news organizations in a digital age of self-publication and live news, public trust in the media is eroding, and with it, respect for the purpose and importance of the presser.

Take for example the recent drugs scandal in Toronto involving the mayor. Large scrums of reporters insist on repeatedly asking him questions on drugs allegations they know he will not answer, and then report on this failure as “news.” This makes for okay television perhaps, but doesn’t have any purpose except to let partisans on either side draw their own obvious conclusions (“They mayor isn’t giving the liberal media the time of day,” “He’s stonewalling because he’s guilty”). Increasingly, the actual reporting takes place on the sidelines with an army of unnamed sources, an indication that many in power don’t feel any compulsion anymore to give honest answers to reporters.

In football, or sports in general, the press conference is even more removed from its original purpose. Witness Jose Mourinho’s performance today. A handful of accredited journalists attend and “live-Tweet” the proceedings in real time. There is little pretense to gleaning any interesting information from the new Chelsea manager, except for a few tidbits on player acquisitions. There are no questions on tactics. Most of the reporters ask about his priorities, his problems at Real Madrid, his ability to work with Abramovich again.

Mourinho’s answers don’t exactly jump from the page. When he first arrived at Chelsea, he called himself the Special One. Now he calls himself the “Happy One.” RT, please. How does he feel returning to a club from which he was sacked by Roman Abramovich? Well no, Mou says, he wasn’t sacked. His priority is winning trophies. He will make Chelsea champions again. He won’t play favourites with his former players. He will try to help out John Terry. He regrets not being able to face Sir Alex Ferguson once more. He didn’t damage Spanish football. He selected the players he wanted at Real Madrid based on merit.

The banal answers to broad questions didn’t matter though, because the press conference was really about celebrating/denigrating Mourinho’s personality. One reporter wrote that his “bravado” was “toned down,” and “the swagger subdued.” Another pointed out how he made a point of repeating he was “very calm” and “very relaxed.” The obvious subtext here is whether Mourinho can maintain ‘self-control’ or work on “repairing” his relationship with Roman Abramovich (the man who just hired him as manager), as if these were the things which Chelsea’s future success under Mourinho most depended on.

In the end beyond this armchair psychoanalyzing that will be forgotten in a week’s time, we learn absolutely nothing. In fact, the entire purpose of the exchange seems obscure. This is sports of course; it’s hard to tell most of the time if anyone has anything of interest to say to anyone ever. The logical question here might be, why bother? Surely asking if a manager who’s losing games is also “losing the dressing room” is a pointless exercise?

I think the answer is press conferences work best once reporters put off airs and understand that they’re an extension of football as entertainment. The tabloid press, with all their earnest, idiotic questions on wives as distractions or the desire to win seem to get this best. Beyond that, the press conference might eventually be transformed into a moment for various reporters to ask incredibly specific questions for their own targeted article, the wider public be damned.

We’ve reached peak presser, in other words. It’s hard to know where we go from here, but anywhere away from the po-faced notion that some public service is being provided by these events would be a good start.