When I read the headline on US News’ Washington Whispers column, “Obama Switches to Cozying with Reporters,” I was expecting a story about how he plans to change his relationship with the Washington press corps, which detractors describe as dismissive, to which I say “rightly so.” Instead it was about his decision to attend the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. He’s just throwing you a bone, guys and gals.
Politico yesterday, in one of the longest articles I’ve seen there, lays out the media criticisms of the Obama administration. Their complaints range from lack of access and favoritism to calls not returned and obsessive control of the message. The bottom line, as is expressly feared in the article, is that the Fourth Estate comes off whiny. Worse, it may be they have only itself to blame.
In the piece, writers Josh Gerstein and Patrick Gavin chronicle the widespread complaint among reporters that the Obama White House controls the message by going over the media’s heads with videos and other forms of messaging that aren’t filtered by journalists.
One current focus of press corps ire are gauzy video features the White House’s staff videographer cranks out, taking advantage of behind-the-scenes access to Obama and his aides, such as a recent piece offering “exclusive footage” of first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden touring Haiti.
“I think someone out there might mistake them for news, as opposed to slick publicity handouts for the White House,” said Compton. “To me, they’re mocking what we do.”
So they’re complaining about not having access to softball tours of the first lady and Mrs. Biden? Even so, who can blame the administration? Any organization wants to control the message. It’s the reporters job to find the real news, not wait for the White House to hand them it.
Reporters perceive the administration favors the New York Times, whose editorial page clearly supports most of Obama’s agenda.
“It’s clearly the case that they’re playing favorites,” said Bloomberg’s Chen, when asked about the White House’s relationship to the Times. "It’s kind of par for the course. Some people understand that — none of us really like it — but that’s the way the administration does business."
But why didn’t those same reporters complain when the Bush folks often used interviews on FOX News, sure to be solicitous, to its advantage?
Gibbs denied an “unnecessary advantage” to the Times, while saying it has far more reporters covering topics of interest to the White House than most outlets. Times Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Dick Stevenson said it would be “absurd” to suggest the Times doesn’t get access in certain instances that others don’t.
“[F]ar more reporters covering topics of interest” is a key phrase. Not that I think it is the real reason, but it may be a subtle jab to news organizations that give undue emphasis on process rather than substance. Let’s face it. The Times, The Washington Post and a few other newspapers drive the public policy conversation. Television network news operations, cable talk shows and most newspapers around the country do little original reporting on national issues and instead follow the leads or run syndicated articles, often from the Times or Post. And those stories are often about process, not policy.
Most interesting to me is the pushback from the White House when stories are not favorable. Press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff even complain over a word or phrase. Gibbs defends his aggressiveness, even over the smallest thing, because lies take on a life of their own and are hard to kill, as Brendan Nyhan has described. Gibbs pushes back in the Politico article.
“The way we live these days, something that’s wrong can whip around and become part of the conventional wisdom in only a matter of moments, and it’s hard to take it, put a top on it and put in back into the box,” Gibbs said. “That’s the nature by which the business operates right now. … This isn’t unique in terms of us, and it’s likely to be more true for the next administration.”
Asked about some of the more aggressive tactics, including complaints to editors, Gibbs said, “We have to do some of those things. … I certainly believe anyone who goes to an editor does so because it’s something they feel is very egregious. I don’t think people do it very lightly.”
Some reporters say the pushback is so aggressive that it undermines the credibility of Obama’s aides. “The willingness to argue that credible information is untrue is at its core dishonest and unfortunately calls into question everything else the press office says,” one White House reporter said.
How much to push back one should exert is a question that has been discussed on public relations forums on LinkedIn. Some, myself included, believe in strong pushback, not only on political issues but also for corporate clients. If a story about a company or its product, services and standing in the industry is unfair, some PR practitioners think pushback is counterproductive and will result in even tougher coverage from reporters. Maybe. Clearly, unhappy reporters may have a hair trigger.
“They ain’t seen nothing yet,” the longtime ABC reporter [Ann Compton] said. “Wait till they have to start really circling the wagons when someone in the administration is under attack, wait till there’s a scandal, wait till someone screws up, then it’ll get hostile.”
There are two other important questions not raised in the article. The first is, has the press marginalized itself because of its focus on conflict and partisanship? In the comments section of this article Tom Genin writes,
Seeing as the president wins on campaigning and loses on policy with the American people as a whole, there’s no reason or upside for him to get into the minutiae of policy with a reporter.
Oh, were that policy minutiae be what the press wants to get into. Actual policies, their possible impact or the experience of other countries that may have employed them are rarely the subject of articles generated by the White House press corps. Frequently, all they are reporting is the spin. Too often, the WH press corps write stories that outline the administration’s point of view, counter opinions from members of the other parties and frequently include quotes from organizations that are usually described as “liberal” or “conservative,” sending a signal to readers of both camps about whether they should believe their point of view. Once a conservative sees “liberal” describing an organization, they are likely to dismiss the quote as partisan BS—and vice versa. It has gotten to the point where any partisan can make any claim and it largely goes unexamined by the press, until it has gained a viral constituency that will believe it no matter how the press later refutes it.
Writing or saying, “but that’s not true,” after a false claim is rarely done by today’s journalists. Thus, if readers can expect only tit-for-tat reports, why read them? If the news consumer can’t find needed information in a story, why waste the time? In fact, I am struck by how much more useful information I find in columns,which are usually designed to have a point of view. That’s where the fact checking often goes on, as well as sites such as PolitiFact.com. Wasn’t there a time when a reporter, sent information he knew to be not true, wouldn’t publish it?
University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill thinks the press can only blame itself.
Is this the same White House press corps that was too cowed to ask a follow-up question of George W. Bush for e
ight years? The press corps that had so abandoned its professional obligation to press the president for the truth that anyone who could raise their hand and throw a soft lob at the president could pose as a member of the corps (remember some-time male escort’s Jeff Gucker Gannon stint as member of the corps?). The same press corps that gave away the critical role of the war correspondent in the first Gulf War under George H.W. Bush (with Cheney as Defense secretary) and accepted instead the "organized tour" for reporters, and then under George W. Bush (this time with Rumsfeld at Defense) the "embedded reporter" control on war reporting? The corps that spent two years questioning President Clinton about a certain intern, rather than about the rising threat of extremist terrorism in the Middle East?
If the Obama administration is taking a firm hand with the White House press corps, then perhaps its time for the corps to engage in a little "truth and reconciliation" about its past failures to vigorously engage the president on the issues most important to the American people. Otherwise it’s hard to work up sympathy for a group of reporters that have participated in their own marginalization.
Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research agrees.
The job of the White House press corps is to reporting [sic] on issues that matter to the American people, not what President Obama had for breakfast. There is nothing that the Obama administration has done that prevents the press corp [sic] from analyzing proposals for health care reform, financial regulation, plans for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doing any other part of the job. It seems that the press is upset because he is forcing them to be real journalists instead of gossip columnists. Too bad.
Which brings me to the second question: Has the White House press corps outlived its usefulness? Donald Johnson, a blogger at Businessword, authors this view in the comment section of the Politico article:
If the W.H. press corps wants to make itself as important as it thinks it is, it should do original reporting and go around the W.H. Meanwhile, why do news organizations waste time and money on staffing the W.H.? There is no there there.
At the very least, should news organizations invest in keeping reporters holed up in the White House waiting for the latest morsel from the administration? Are reporters serving any useful purpose asking the chief mouthpiece of the administration to explain and defend its position, if they are not going to put that information under a microscope to ascertain its validity? Certainly, a select, rotating pool of reporters could ask such questions while the others are spending more time examining the issues.
Finally, I am not defending the Obama White House withholding critical public information the public has a right to know. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about the press wanting special access. Take the information coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., critically analyze it, confirm it if you can, find the holes in it if they’re there, get the views of others and not just the political establishment and report it.
And stop whining.
For this I give him credit:
Obama took a shot at his media coverage, saying that “pundits in Washington kept saying, ‘What’s he doing? …. Doesn’t he know it will make him vulnerable?’
“Well, yes. Turns out I’ve got pollsters, too. We usually know what’s going to be unpopular before the newspapers do. But I also knew that if you govern by pundits and polls, then you lose sight of why you got into public service in the first place.”
Returning to the theme later, he said: “There are stories right now, ‘We polled Obama in 2012!’ I’m not joking. People writing entire columns …”
Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman provides context to Obama’s declining popularity, currently around 50 percent, depending on the poll. He’s simply following the usual path of a new president’s first year. In fact, the Dallas Morning News headline outs it this way: “Just Like Reagan.” Mr. Greed-Is-Good, however, rebounded to win 49 states in the next next election. George W. Bush was on his way to suffering the same fate in his first year, but for 9/11, which despite it being his administration that let its guard down and cost the lives of 3,000 people, that helped his popularity soared.
Chapman cites research by Stanford University professor Douglas Rivers.
Though Obama rated the lowest of recent presidents at the end of his first year, Rivers says the pattern "is pretty much in line with what you would expect." What we see is "more a continuing trend than an Obama phenomenon."
That’s not to say Obama has made no mistakes. Every president bungles some things, and every president pays a price.
His fiscal policy and health care plan, in particular, have spawned public resentment. On the other hand, his grades on gay rights and immigration have actually improved — possibly because he has done less than expected on either. There is no real evidence to suggest that the public finds Obama far more fallible or detestable than they usually find presidents at this stage.
On health care reform, it’s not clear what he could have done differently to appease a notoriously demanding citizenry. Surveys indicate people think that if his plan passes, they will get "worse care at a higher cost," says Rivers. What do they expect if his plan doesn’t pass? "They’ll get worse care at a higher cost."
I wish I could say Americans’ suspicion of health care reform shows a sensible appreciation of the limits of government power and responsibility. But I suspect the real problem is they fear it will not guarantee them everything they want at someone else’s expense. Rivers notes that when you ask people about specific components of the plan, they turn out to be "fairly popular."
If Americans distrust the government, they also take a dim view of the private sector, or parts of it. "Anything negative for insurance companies is popular," says Rivers. Most people blame insurers for rising health care expenditures, even though insurance companies are one of the few constituencies with a powerful interest in reducing outlays.
This is not the contradiction it may appear. People don’t mind when national health care costs rise. They do mind when their personal health care costs rise. When that happens, they blame health insurers. They may also blame the president.
But most important is Chapman’s observation of politicians and the media, pointing out how frustrating it is to see the amount of newsprint dedicated to the daily politics of reform and the insipid observations of the pundit class.
American politicians and commentators are generally not afflicted by a deep knowledge or appreciation of history. If they were, they would not waste their time laboring to explain something that requires little explanation. They could simply state the obvious — new presidents invariably lose public esteem in the first year of their terms — and go on to try to explicate something truly mysterious, like Lady Gaga.
It’s a mistake to think every political trend has deep meaning.
One of the greatest responsibilities a president has is to decide to send American women and men into combat. He should make that decision on his own, after carefully considering all the information and opinions of his advisors.
Anne Kornblut and Greg Jaffe make a call I’m not sure they have enough evidence to make. They seem to be reading Obama’s mind.
The military chiefs have been largely supportive of a resource request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that would by one Pentagon estimate require the deployment of 44,000 additional troops. But opinion among members of Obama’s national security team is divided, and he now appears to be seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy both his military and civilian advisers. [emphasis added]
“Appears to be seeking a compromise”? That, if true, is a damning observation, and surely will seized by Republican critics. A president shouldn’t be arbiter-in-chief. He shouldn’t “satisfy” his advisors. He should make the call based on what he thinks is right, not try to find middle ground among his advisors.
But that might not be the case, as there is nothing in the story to suggest he is looking for a compromise. I’d love to know why Kornblut and Jaffe make that call.
Anson Dorrance, the famed University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach, once said that there was a key difference between coaching men and women athletes. When you go into the locker room, he said, and chew out the men’s team for mistakes, every guy there looks around to those who he thinks were the culprits. It never occurs to him that he could be the problem. A woman internalizes the criticism and thinks the coach is specifically talking about her.
So it is with reporters, I thought, as I read Jonathan Martin’s story about Obama being a media critic. Martin assumes he’s talking only about cable news. That’s particularly ironic, given that Martin’s employer, Politico, focuses exclusively on the to and fro of political grenades.
The irony aside, I welcome another article about Obama doing just what many of us hoped he would: attack the media.
“It feels like WWF wrestling,” Obama explained to NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview. “You know, everybody’s got their role to play.”
The off-the-cuff characterization was in keeping with his newly emerging role, squeezed in between East Room ceremonies and pushing for health care reform: the commander in chief is becoming the nation’s media critic in chief.
While Martin spends much of the article pointing out examples of Obama’s frustration with cable news, one thing Martin is blind to: Many news outlets, including Politico, let cable gabfests drive their news agenda.
Congrats to the Prez. I’ve urged this more than once.
Whether it’s President Obama or anyone else in public life, they need to start holding journalists accountable for their coverage, which is to a large degree the result of laziness and lack of editorial leadership.
I’m glad to see the president calling the media out on how it covers the news – and sometimes makes it. Obama hit four of the five interviews yesterday with his take on the news.