File this under the heading Things That Would Have Been Helpful in 2012. Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen discuss the media strategy of Barack Obama in sidelining the hard-news political reporters in favor of softball venues such as Entertainment Tonight and more recently Golf Digest, which got the treasured Tiger Woods scoop. The two now wonder — a few months after it might have made a difference — whether the media’s lack of vigor in keeping Obama accountable has tipped the balance of power dangerously toward the executive branch:
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 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 — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.
“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nowadays, he said, “The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”
“Not for the reason conservatives suspect”? What reason might it be, then? When George W. Bush went more than a month without a press conference, the political press made sure to accuse the White House of being afraid to have him answer questions, mocked Bush’s ability to communicate, and painted the Bush administration as insular. We’re lucky to get four actual press conferences a year from Obama, and yet only occasionally has the political press made an issue of it — and usually only after an obviously intentional slap on a non-issue, like the Tiger Woods story.
VandeHei and Allen push back on the notion that the press is in bed with the White House:
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.
Then why are we only hearing about this now? It seems that the press only really cares about that when a Republican lives in the White House.
And then there’s this:
The super-safe, softball interview is an Obama specialty. The kid glove interview of Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Steve Kroft of CBS’s “60 Minutes” is simply the latest in a long line of these. Obama gives frequent interviews (an astonishing 674 in his first term, compared with 217 for President George W. Bush), but they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.
Well, who exactly lets the White House get away with that? Would Steve Kroft have tossed softballs to a President Mitt Romney the way he did with Obama? Hardly.
For a good example of this point, here are the two men discussing skeet shooting as an example, and avoiding practically all mention of the lack of public accountability on real issues tilting the balance of power toward the executive:
Even the skeet shooting story is a good example of how the press applies a double standard, and uses a non-story to distract from their own lack of assertiveness. The reason conservatives scoffed at Obama’s claims was that he said he went skeet shooting “all the time” as a response to criticism over his gun-control proposals, attempting to claim full membership in the sport-shooting clique. After the White House published a single picture of Obama firing a shotgun, the press picked up the White House attack line of “skeet birthers” in order to ridicule not the politician who wanted to limit rights, but the people who criticized the politician.
Can you imagine that happening with a Republican President? Neither can I. Perhaps we need a Republican President at all times so that the press can act like the independent watchdog that it believes itself to be, rather than the lapdog that it has become under a Democratic President.
Update: Not unrelated — NBC News hires David Axelrod. Doesn’t sound like the media is punishing Obama or his advisers for this strategy.