Politico’s Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen penned an article entitled “Obama, the Puppet Master” on Monday, in which they discuss the ability of the White House to manipulate media coverage, with a mixture of admiration and mild criticism:
The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House â?? fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press â?? has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.
â??The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press,â?ť said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nowadays, he said, â??The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say itâ??s really tough to do business with people who donâ??t see the need to be cooperative.â?ť
McCurry and his colleagues in the Clinton White House were hardly above putting their boss in front of gentle questions: Clinton and Vice President Al Gore often preferred the safety of â??Larry King Liveâ?ť to the rhetorical combat of the briefing room. But Obama and his aides have raised it to an art form: The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on â??The Viewâ?ť?
At the same time, this White House has greatly curtailed impromptu moments where reporters can ask tough questions after a staged event â?? or snap a picture of the president that was not shot by government-paid photographers.
The frustrated Obama press corps neared rebellion this past holiday weekend when reporters and photographers were not even allowed onto the Floridian National GolfClub, where Obama was golfing. That breached the tradition of the pool â??holdingâ?ť in the clubhouse and often covering â?? and even questioning â?? the president on the first and last holes.
Obama boasted Thursday during a Google+ Hangout from the White House: â??This is the most transparent administration in history.â?ť The people who cover him day to day see it very differently.
But they don’t reallyÂ complainÂ about it, or even remark upon it… at least, not until Obama left his jilted media girlfriends at the putting range while he sallied onto the golf course with Tiger Woods. Â It really is amazing to observe how this – not any of Obama’s countless lies, deceptions, manipulations, and abuses, butÂ thisÂ – truly hurt their feelings. Â Vandehei and Allen have written the longest and most thorough… expose? gripe? mea culpa? shot across the bow? – of many to appear over the past few days.
Politico quotes ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton slamming the lack of White House transparency:Â â??The way the presidentâ??s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace. Â The presidentâ??s day-to-day policy development â?? on immigration, on guns â?? is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it. Â There are no readouts from big meetings he has with people from the outside, and many of them arenâ??t even on his schedule. Â This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.â?ť
You don’t say! Â That’s been going on for two years? Â It might have been nice for the American people to know about it during the election, don’t you think?
But now that Obama has been safely re-elected, his media cheerleaders are looking for a way to salvage some shred of credibility, while polishing their image as objective, inquisitive journalists. Â Politico gives the game away with its opening paragraphs:
President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.
Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And itâ??s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.
(Emphasis mine.) Â But later in the article, we get this:
Brooks Kraft, a contributing photographer to Time, said White House officials â??have a willing and able and hungry press that eats this stuff up, partly because the news organizations are cash-strapped.â?ť
â??White House handout photos used to be reserved for historically important events â?? 9/11, or deliberations about war,â?ť Kraft said. â??This White House regularly releases [day-in-the-life] images of the president â?¦ a nice picture of the president looking pensive â?¦ from events that could have been covered by the press pool. But I donâ??t blame the White House for doing it, because networks and newspapers use them. So the White House has built its own content distribution network.â?ť
Oh, so itÂ isÂ for the “reason conservatives suspect.” Â Actually, this whole article is a vindication of every conservative critique of media bias. Â There’s the obvious political slant, plus the pathetic hunger to feed the 24-hour-news cycle, and the laziness of “reporters” who love running pre-written cut-and-paste press releases from people who share their world-view, and the reluctance to tie all this together into a damaging “narrative” about White House obfuscation, as they surely would if Obama was a Republican…
Perhaps conscious of how much ammunition their own article gives media critics, Politico’s writers make heroic efforts to sustain the counter-narrative:
Conservatives assume a cozy relationship between this White House and the reporters who cover it. Wrong. Many reporters find Obama himself strangely fearful of talking with them and often aloof and cocky when he does. They find his staff needlessly stingy with information and thin-skinned about any tough coverage. He gets more-favorable-than-not coverage because many staffers are fearful of talking to reporters, even anonymously, and some reporters inevitably worry access or the chance of a presidential interview will decrease if they get in the face of this White House.
Obama himself sees little upside to wide-ranging interviews with the beat reporters for the big newspapers â?? hence, the stiffing of even The New York Times since 2010. The presidentâ??s staff often finds Washington reporters whiny, needy and too enamored with trivial matters or their own self-importance.
But ideological and partisan media bias do not require any sort of “cozy relationship” with reporters. Â The fate of John McCain demonstrates how a cozy relationship offers no protection from such biases. Â Obama’s media girlfriends don’t care if the relationship is somewhat one-sided; they love and admire him no less for it. Â They might even admire him more, because brittle treatment by the White House staff absolves the media of responsibility for its shoddy coverage. Â Now that his second term is secure, they can safely dash off a few gossipy columns about their dreamboat’s beastly behavior… mixed, even now, with barely-contained admiration for how Obama’s political skills and advanced technology are used to manipulate them.
Do Vandehei and Allen seriously expect us to believe the media would have suffered through such treatment in stoic silence, until after President John McCain was re-elected? Â Does anyone really believe they’d be so quick to provide softball interviews upon demand to a Republican president, no matter how skilled his political team might be? Â Would the print media offer only muted objections to aÂ years-long drought of interviews, or cheerfully allow themselves to be bullied with threats of restricted press access?
Politico actually praises Obama’s team for their skillful handling of “Skeet-gate” – which only worked because an extremely pliant media was willing to let Obama spinners write the coverage of a fairly straightforward presidential gaffe. Â No one can be so delusional that they think a Republican politician would be able to twist a comparable gaffe into mockery of his critics without the press – and the comedy writers of the left-leaning entertainment media – constantly pointing out that the President started the whole thing with a silly little fib intended to make him appear comfortable with firearms. Â For some reason, it doesn’t occur to the Politico writers to point out that it tookÂ daysÂ for Obama’s frantic hacks to find a picture of the President firing a shotgun… even though Obama’s original claim was that he indulges in such gun sports on a frequent basis.
This whole article is an elaborate effort to credit “new technology” for Obama’s ability to manipulate the press… even though virtually all of that technology existed during George Bush’s second term. Â A much older explanation is more pertinent: the press is very willing to be seduced by a President it adores. Â It feels the need to protect its credibility by pretending it was hard to get.