Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Whip me, beat me, call me trash

In an extensive piece at Politico the other day, Politico's executive editor Jim VandeHei and its chief political correspondent Mike Allen argue that the Obama Administration is so skilled at manipulating the media and creating its own content for social media that the national press--as a group--is losing power:
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.”
But the overall point of the story is not so much to detail these "transformational" techniques employed by the White House as it is to dispel the notion that the mainstream media is, by and large, wholly in the tank for the Obama administration (with some exceptions, to be sure):
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.
VandeHei and Allen go on to detail some instances of reporter frustration, like this past weekend's Presidential golf outing, along with specific examples of content creation and dissemination by the White House, like the picture of the President shooting skeet. And they seem particularly annoyed by things like 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, according to statistics compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University), but they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.
Now, last time I checked 60 Minutes was largely viewed as a show that did "hard news." Could this simply be a case of professional jealousy on the part of the DC-based press corps? Looks that way:
They are also masters of scrutiny avoidance. The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years. These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.
But okay, let's allow that it's more than this (simple jealousy), let's allow that the Administration is acting in exactly the way VandeHei and Allen say its acting and that the press is getting treated poorly. How is the press responding to all of this? Aside from bitching and moaning in private, it's taking the content the White House is spoon-feeding it and running with it, by and large. This vaunted White House press corps who supposedly asks the tough questions accepts the White House's version of reality nine times out ten; like an attack dog kept in a state of near starvation, it jumps to the defense of the White House, immediately going for the throat of any critics. Look at the Benghazi situation and the aborted Susan Rice nomination. Even with the facts against the Obama Administration, these tough reporters still spun things for Obama's benefit.

Bettie Page, circa 1950's
Thus, the initial claim scoffed at by VandeHei and Allen--that the press allows itself to be manipulated because it's very much a liberal press--is exactly correct. VandeHei and Allen are just unable or unwilling to take a hard look in the mirror, to admit their own politics have driven them, like so much of the mainstream media, into a sadomasochistic relationship with the White House. The worse the White House treats the press, apparently, the harder the press backs the White House's agenda.

And that is an unhealthy relationship, no doubt about it. Not only does the press lose out in the balance of power, it also loses out in public perception. Because deft though the White House may be at manipulation of social media, it is not the only player in that regard. The fanboy-ism of the mainstream press has--more than anything else--propelled to national prominence a new wave of journalism, far more skeptical of all things Washingtonian, be they from the mouths of politicians or inside-the-beltway reporters.

Cheers, all.