No thanks, Obama: The Pres and the Press

The Press have been the conduit through which leaders have spoken to their citizens since it’s inception. Through Print, Television and Radio, journalists have been the filter through which successive administrations have spoken. One such set of filters is the White House Correspondents Association, whom have recently demanded a set of ‘principles and practices’ when it comes to access to the President during public addresses. This comes off the back of increasing frustration towards Obama’s administration and their practice and process towards the White House Press.

They increasingly feel that they are navigated around or evaded, in favour of more direct address to the public, and it seems this may well be the case. The White House press often feel excluded from events and the Obama PR machine is the biggest propagator of messages and images. Peter Baker, a White House Correspondent for the New York Times states that “the people who cover the president know him the least”. The White House seems to take much of it’s communication in-house with a video-reporting operation which produces ‘West Wing Week’, the first Presidential twitter account, a youtube channel and 61 staff members working on press, media and message (more than many corporations) including former Chicago Tribune reporter David Axelrod as his main media strategist.

Where the previous Bush administration had largely relied on Fox News to be their mouthpiece, ideologically aligned and with vested personal interests being satisfied, Obama’s team all but do away with the Press, becoming content creators like Jack and Dean or Tyler Oakley, albeit with a tonne more money and pull. His team update twitter, post on facebook and make weekly videos. The press, conversely, haven’t adapted as well to modern telecommunications and for too long saw these emergent technologies as competition instead of something to adopt as part of their process.

A failing relationship

Now, respected news sources become hostages to the “modern demands for a click-worthy story and a tweetable quote” tending to ask about headlines and repeating the previous question in different forms rather than delve into proper issues. Instead, the meatier stories related to the President come from external sources, with little knowledge of the initial though patterns. They can map the weather, but have no idea what caused the rain. Because they are no longer seen as necessary by the President, they no longer talk for him, he does. A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that the relationship between the Press and the White House is at it’s worse in 50 years. They feel they are determined to hide themselves from the press, using their own, less accountable channels instead. This is because the White House argues the press sensationalise, which they do, and increasingly so in a world full of twitters and buzzfeeds. The Press argues that the White House plays with facts to push a narrative, which it does. Both arguments are valid

The way both news and official narratives are received and translated have changed with the emergent technology at citizens hands. The lines between citizen and journalist have become increasingly blurred and many are just as likely to “process the State of the Union through your brother-in-law’s Facebook rants” as “the tweets of a few favourite reporters”.

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House (CC BY 2.5)

However, whilst Obama’s administration has been very clever and rode the zeitgeist of modern media technology to do away with the press, as a filter, there is another role that is empty, the watchmen. The Press aren’t meant to be a filter, in the way Fox News is typically recognised, but as finders of truth. To investigate the official reasoning and deduce the agenda behind them. By circumventing the press, this administration has direct access to the people, with little to filter out the official ‘common sense’ that may be undemocratic. In an information vacuum, the “official story becomes the only story”.

Freedom of the press

Indeed, a free press is regularly held as a foundation of modern democracy yet the Associated Press’ phone records were secretly obtained, individual Fox Reporters tracked and several government officials criminally charged with leaking classified information by Obama’s administration. The CEO of AP stated that this “chilling effect” seemed “tailor made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media”. James Risen, a New York Times reporter took the US government to court for demanding to identify his confidential sources, the supreme court declining his request, leaving him with no protection against being forced to do so.

A Yemeni journalist who exposed his governments cover-up of a US missile strike that killed 14 women and 21 children was sentenced to 5 years in prison, following a sham trial with no substantial evidence. International pressure forced the Yemeni government to pardon him, until Obama rang the Yemeni leader and halted his release. Even abroad, the relationship between the White House and the Press is extremely one-sided. Obama’s apparent war on the Press led Risen to refer to his administration as “the Greatest enemy of Press Freedom in a generation”.

Whilst many will say that the White House Press Correspondents requests are too much, invading the privacy of a busy man or whining, it’s important that there are people who will watch the President very closely and try to make that stone bleed. This administration hasn’t sidestepped the media because it’s better than them, it’s done so to avoid it’s gaze. 

Kettle mag, America season