Sen. Bernie Sanders and former senator Paul Kirk speak at a press conference Thursday at Dartmouth College.
Bernie Sanders has always had a peculiar understanding of the press conference.
In the push and pull between newsmakers and the media, both sides generally agree that it's an opportunity for the former to push their message and the latter to ask unfiltered questions. But for years — actually, decades — Sanders has resisted the second part of that proposition: the answering unfiltered questions part.
Long before he ran for president, the independent senator established a reputation in Vermont for calling press conferences — on, say, employee stock ownership plans — and then refusing to answer questions about anything else.
"In terms of politicians manipulating the news, you've mastered the art," the late Vanguard Press and Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne complained to Sanders at a 1985 forum. "When asked a question you don't want to answer, you leave the room. You got up and walked right out of here."
Now that he's a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders appears to be giving the same treatment to the national political press corps.
Sanders summoned reporters to a press conference Thursday evening at a Dartmouth College faculty lounge in Hanover, N.H., to announce what his campaign billed as an "important endorsement." Nope, it wasn't Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the darling on the progressive movement, but a relatively obscure predecessor of hers: former Democratic National Committee chair Paul Kirk, who replaced the late Ted Kennedy in the Senate for a brief span of four months.
Just after 6 p.m., Kirk took his place at a podium, adorned with a Sanders sign reading, "A future to believe in." The candidate stood an awkward distance to his right. Roughly three-dozen reporters and camera operators listened attentively.
"I'll get right to the point, if I may," Kirk began, before delivering an 11-minute sermon on the perils facing American democracy and Sanders' unique ability to deliver the country from them.
"I want to thank Sen. Kirk for, in his support of my candidacy, highlighting what I think is the most important crisis facing our country," Sanders said, after his former colleague finished. "And that is that our campaign finance system today is corrupt. It us undermining American democracy. And it has to change."
After expounding on the subject for a few more minutes, Sanders opened up the presser for questions — sort of.
"Sen. Sanders, you said that you would fully explain your health care plan and how you'd pay for it before the Iowa caucuses," CNN's Jeff Zeleny began.
"That's right," Sanders interjected.
"And your campaign manager says you may not meet that deadline," Zeleny continued. "Can you please explain—"
"No, look. OK," Sanders interrupted. "In this sense, what I would like to do: Let me start off with Sen. Kirk's endorsement. Questions on what Sen. Kirk or I have said?"
"Any questions on that?" he asked again.
A man standing in the back of the room with a video camera seized the opportunity, identifying himself as an "independent journalist, documentarist."
"Um, don't we really have a big media problem here?" the documentarist asked. "Isn't big money buying big media? And hasn't Trump, uh, really shown us that it's a reality TV series that we're buying into here?"
"Well, I think that that's a point," Sanders said, appearing to appreciate the softball question, despite its having nothing to do with Kirk's endorsement. "When we talk about corporate control over the media, we are talking about large multinational corporations who own our media. And I think, obviously, there are often conflicts of interest between what corporate media believes and what certain candidates like myself might believe."
And on and on.
"Quick follow-up, senator," the documentarist said. "I was thrown out of a Trump event for just following the rules. I think it was a First Amendment issue. The Secret Service actually escorted me out [at] the behest of the campaign. How do you feel about that kind of treatment?"
"I don't think that the United States Secret Service should be tossing out people in the media, obviously," Sanders responded.
"Senator, you've said that you want to make all public colleges in the United States—" a reporter began.
"OK, can we stay on the —" Sanders cut in. "What I would like to do, for a moment at least, is Sen. Kirk's endorsement. Is there, uh, any other questions?"
The assembled reporters started to come into compliance. One asked about Sanders' new self-identification as a Democrat and what that said about the party. Another asked about the steps he'd take to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Sanders was more than happy to reply.
Nearly 25 minutes into the "press conference," Zeleny gave it another go.
"I don't want to be rude, but I have to go on the air in about 10 minutes with Wolf Blitzer," the CNN reporter said. "I know he's going to want to know the answer, if you're going to, perhaps, explain how you'll pay for your health care—"
"Sure, look, the truth is: We already have a plan," Sanders said. "What we have presented, as you know, a few years ago — 2013, I think — was rather a long and detailed single-payer, Medicare-for-all plan. That is our plan. Now, the good news is that we think as a result of some of the successes of the Affordable Care Act, our plan actually will be less expensive. So we'll be able to change the funding mechanisms to some degree. And we will come out [with] that. We'll have an outline for that, certainly before Iowa."