White House press secretaries are charged with briefing the press on the activities of the president’s administration, but a new survey shows just how often they try to avoid that obligation by evading questions.
By diving into the transcripts of more than 5,000 press briefings since 1993 – the earliest that the American Presidency Project’s archives date back to – Buzzfeed was able to compile a list of phrases favored by press secretaries as they try to avoid answering sensitive or critical questions. These were dubbed “weasel phrases” by the site, and include sayings like, “I can’t comment on,” “not going to speculate,” and “I’m not aware.”
After seeking out these phrases, the website calculated how often they were uttered per every 1,000 words the press secretary spoke. Although the survey is far from scientific, it did produce some interesting results.
According to the chart, President Bill Clinton had easily the most evasive press secretaries, with four of the top five slots going to people working in his administration. George Stephanopoulos topped the list with 12.5 weasel phrases per 1,000 words, but his successor Dee Dee Myers was not far behind with 11.
Generally speaking, press secretaries under President George W. Bush were less evasive than those under Presidents Barack Obama and Clinton, with Ari Fleischer being the least slippery of all at 3.4 weasel phrases. Overall, Bush secretaries averaged 5.1 weasel phrases, compared to 6.3 under Obama and 7.5 under Clinton.
The phrase “I don’t know” was spoken the most by all secretaries over the last 21 years – nearly 10,000 times.
Buzzfeed also found that press secretaries became more evasive as time passed between 2001 and 2009, but that they became more direct as the years passed under Obama. Current briefer Josh Earnest is the most straightforward outside of Fleischer.
Check out the whole survey here.