The President and the Press

Depending on whom you ask, President Obama is either too cozy or too remote with the press.

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President Barack Obama speaks with a reporter during an interview in the White House library. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama speaks with a reporter during an interview in the White House library. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Like most of my closest friends, James used to be a daily journalist. He was an editor in big-city newsrooms for decades with an insider’s view on the top stories of the day. Though he never worked in Washington, D.C., James kept close scrutiny on the ins-and-outs of news affecting federal policy and, especially, President Barack Obama’s Washington.

But now, my friend is retired and forced to get his news without special insights. He learns what he knows mostly by scrolling the Internet, watching cable news, and listening to talk radio, just like any other civilian. The disruptions in his formerly unfiltered news diet prompted James to reach out to me, an erstwhile newspaperman.

Once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman—James and I are forever kindred spirits. I just happen to live in the nation’s capital and he thought I might have some insight to share. “Sam, do you hear much talk in Washington about the access, or lack of access, that journalists have with the Obama administration?” he asked me.

I don’t run with the pack of Washington’s news hounds. From my perch nowadays, I observe and study politics from a perspective unlike contemporary journalists. In fact, I’m likely to be called upon by an old newsroom buddy for a quote, but I’m not out drinking with them after filing a story on deadline.

But I’m glad James asked, because I’ve been thinking about just this issue. Some of my old newsroom pals say they’ve been chatting it up a great deal with the president. And I’d just finished reading something in Politico about the president’s relationship with reporters and columnists. According to the online publication, President Obama isn’t terribly fond of formal news conferences or sparring with reporters but enjoys inviting columnists and selected opinion makers to the White House for bull sessions that can go on for hours. “He likes the intellectual sparring element of it,” a source familiar with the president’s thinking told Politico. “He likes talking to reasonable adversaries.”

All this comes as some of the president’s critics seek yet another line of attack on his administration. While some, such as Jack Welch, have argued the president is abusively too powerful, other critics have claimed he’s clueless and detached, because he says he didn’t know about the National Security Administration’s spying on allied heads of state or admits to being uninformed about computer SNAFUs related to the health care website.

James wondered whether the White House was “walling off the traditional media” by refusing to be clubby with Washington’s elite reporting classes. I think so, but there’s more to it than simple pique with the mainstream media stars.

For sure, things aren’t quite the same as when President Teddy Roosevelt held his “barber’s hour,” a time when reporters were called into the White House to ask the president questions as his barber used a straight-edge razor to stroke away the Big Guy’s whiskers. Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin recently shared that bit of nostalgia during an interview on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in a broadcast that highlighted the contrast between an open White House—Teddy Roosevelt’s—and a closed one, Barack Obama’s.

If old Teddy never tweeted out a message to adoring supporters, why should reporters feel rejected if they can’t watch as Obama gets his haircut? The nation’s transition to a digital, social media style of communication doesn’t necessarily mean that “dead-tree journalism” has been cast into the cold, cruel trash pile.

From what I recall of my time as a reporter in Washington, journalists have always griped about the White House declining to grant desired access, failing to provide information, or playing favorites. That’s the nature of the game. But times change, and with the changing times, styles of communication evolve as well.

Media consolidation and shrinking budgets reduced the number of reporters from traditional media who cover the White House. Even for those who are still around, fewer travel with the president to every event.

Correspondingly, the White House finds it less productive to push its message through traditional media routes. This isn’t new, but digital technology and social media make the changes more dramatic and obvious.

Even though I’d still like to imagine that ink runs through my veins, I’m not frightened by the White House’s—or any politicians’—use of social media to bypass the traditional media, because the nation is far too democratic and diverse to allow for extremist politics to carry the day in the long term. Even with a narcoleptic national media, I’m convinced that more Americans are engaged and involved in political life than ever before in our nation’s history.

The Internet makes everybody a journalist capable of sharing information in a nanosecond while rendering big-story, pack journalism less important. Granted, people may be informed unevenly, but over time, the truth finds its due course in our civic life and more folks share information across boundaries that had previously been tightly circumscribed by mainstream reporters.

Fact of the matter, the White House is often a lagging indicator of the national mood or appetite for political information. In some ways, I’d argue, you could look at the Obama administration as being hamstrung by its inability to impose its will on the media and public. Natasha Lennard, an assistant news editor at Salon, understands this perfectly. In a recent essay, Lennard accurately notes that our political system doesn’t allow anyone—including the president—to run willy-nilly over the nation:

This, then, is the contradiction of the presidency right now: All-powerful and hands tied all at once; dictator and hostage. … The executive and the legislative branches of government sit now not in a relationship of checks-and-balances, but rather a troubling set of coexistent strangleholds and free passes.

This is most obvious, my dear friend James, in the Obama administration’s relationships with the news media.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)