Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Obama and the media

In an article published Tuesday, Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen examine the media strategy of the Obama White House:
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 it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.
The article, which was also the top story in Allen's Playbook on Tuesday, echoes what we discussed in class regarding which outlets the President grants interviews to. A sidebar (!!!) video titled "Obama's softball interviews" compiles clips of the President's appearances on The View and other programs; and the article jabs, "Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on 'The View'?"

Much of the analysis is interesting, and the point about the administration neglecting print reporters is plausible, as we discussed in class. However, having had firsthand experience at the White House during the CMC Washington Program (do it!), I take issue with some of the evidence they use to portray Obama's communications efforts as "arguably dangerous," including this point in particular:
One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is extensive government creation of content (photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides), which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media. They often include footage unavailable to the press.
While it is true that this administration has released an unprecedented number of photos—over 4,000 have been posted on the White House public Flickr stream since 2009—and videos, this isn't a bad or nefarious development. White House photographers take hundreds of photos of the President every day of both open- and closed-press events, as they have since the Johnson administration. Choosing to release more of these photos to the public as they are taken increases transparency, despite the article's assertion to the contrary. Take, for example, photos taken during meetings held in the Situation Room—events the press never has and never will have access to. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has released over 100 photos of these meetings. The Bush administration released far fewer, and I'd be willing to bet that isn't just because the technology wasn't as advanced.

Additionally, photo releases are rarely driven by some agenda of the President's communications staff. Rather, both the photo of the day, and the photos posted each month on Flickr are chosen by Official White House Photographer Pete Souza and the Photo Office staff—most of whom have journalism backgrounds themselves and respect and value the role of the White House Press Corps.

Ok, enough with my ranting (I could discuss White House photos for hours). Former White House Press Corps member Matthew Cooper offered a more nuanced response to VandeHei and Allen in the National Journal. Recent developments aren't as surprising as some reporters have made them out to be, after all, Cooper says, "Each administration takes greater liberties to spin the news than the one before, which is utterly unsurprising. State and local governments do the same. So do corporations." He continues:
The real question is what’s lost in the process. Some, but not much, I’d say. The loss of scripted sessions such as “read outs” — behind-the-scenes accounts of presidential meetings as described by White House aides — is a loss, but not one that would have deterred a Bob Woodward or Ryan Lizza from richly reported accounts of the White House. (Granted they’re not in the sealed world of the White House press corps, but the point still stands.) 
Cooper argues the press corps ought to focus instead on intelligence issues:
The greater threat from the Obama administration isn’t the usual playing of head games with the White House press corps; it’s the aggressive prosecution of both the people who leak government information and the reporters who receive it...Those are the things we really need to know. The president’s golf score? Oh, please.

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