Barack Obama has been the subject of some criticism for his unconventional media strategy, and those criticisms are not only being issued by conservatives alone. When the president offers precious access to a YouTube celebrity who generated recognition after bathing in cereal milk, it is fair to assume that Obama is intentionally courting controversy.
The White House endured some recent criticism over the president’s decision to sit down for interviews with Vox.com and BuzzFeed. Obama’s dialogue with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith was fair and enlightening, but many were concerned that Obama’s selfie stick antics in a subsequent BuzzFeed video promoting the Affordable Care Act (on the day Kayla Mueller was confirmed dead by ISIS hands) blurred the appropriate distinctions between a news organization and supportive outlet. The president’s interview with Vox similarly lacked in noteworthy moments save for Obama’s heavily criticized comments about the randomness of Islamic terrorist violence and the undue attention the media devotes to that phenomenon.
Those are not invalid criticisms though they are not strictly about the worthiness of the venues the president chose. CNN apparently wanted to litigate the above grievances on Sunday when they invited representatives from BuzzFeed and Vox on State of the Union to discuss those controversial presidential interviews. But rather than invite a critic of the president who might have expressed these concerns, CNN filled the third seat with a former spokesperson for the Obama campaign. The result was a predictable impugning of conservatives’ motives and the dismissing of their apprehensions without a counterpoint to be found:
CNN was smart to book Vox’s Matt Yglesias and BuzzFeed’s John Stanton to participate in a discussion about the president’s approach to new media. It would have been fascinating to hear how a conservative might have argued that Obama was diminishing the presidency by providing those venues the White House access to which they are privy. Instead, CNN’s viewers were treated to the comments of Ben LaBolt, a former Obama campaign spokesperson, who did little more than repeat White House talking points. Does CNN mean to suggest that every single articulate conservative on the Eastern Seaboard was unavailable yesterday? What is the point of this guest booking strategy if not to strongly suggest that conservative criticisms of the president’s new media strategy are invalid?
“It’s a bit like saying that ABC News should be worried about Marvel doing something with the president, right?” Stanton asked. Presumably, he meant that Disney, which owns both ABC News and the rights to Marvel Comic’s movie franchises, should be concerned about the objectivity of their news brand if they were to both interview Obama and promote him in a movie adaptation of a comic book… And they should. Why shouldn’t they? The summary dismissal of this prospect by Stanton serves to shield the brand he represents from criticism, but it does not neutralize the dangerous hypothetical he raised.
“It’s not a surprise that conservatives don’t love an interview with the president,” Yglesias said when asked to respond to Republican criticisms of Obama’s new media strategy. “They don’t like the president. They don’t like what he’s saying.” The implication in this comment is that conservatives are moved to criticize Obama by emotion and personal animus. Yglesias might believe that is a fair characterization, but it is galling for CNN to provide him with a platform to make this statement unopposed.
Yglesias went on to praise his own ability to elicit candor out of the president. He noted that the comfortable progressive atmosphere at Vox prompted Obama to speak “imprecisely.” But many conservatives have made the opposite critique: Obama was not only speaking with exquisite precision, he was providing the world with a window into his impassive and professorial thinking on matters relating to national security. His comments gave millions reasonable pause. Why does CNN think those millions do not deserve a voice?
“What makes you cringe the most?” LaBolt was asked by Jim Acosta. “The president sitting down with a BuzzFeed or a Vox or 60 Minutes or a CNN?” LaBolt’s response was to answer this question honestly and from the perspective of an advisor to the president, which is fine. It does, however, expose that the protagonists in this segment were Obama, the White House, his staff, and the media outlets that sat down with him rather than the American public who is meant to consume these interviews. This segment exemplified the problem that plagues all Sunday morning news programs: They cater to a Beltway audience and are perhaps unaware of how dismissive they are of the general public.
CNN is a sound news outlet. They deserve credit today for following in National Journal’s footsteps and examining exactly what a Department of Homeland Security shutdown would look like (spoiler: it wouldn’t look much like a shutdown at all). But the guest booking strategy here is inexplicable. They did their audience a disservice on Sunday, and they demonstrated why conservatives do not believe the Beltway press can serve as a neutral arbiter of political grievances.