Auletta examines Obama’s relationship with the media

New Yorker press release

With Cable, the Web, and Tweets, Can the President — or the Press — Still Control the Story?

In the January 25, 2010, issue of The New Yorker, in “Non-Stop News” (p. 38), Ken Auletta examines the Obama Administration’s fraught relationship with the media. The President’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, tells Auletta that the President is on a mission “not just to change politics in Washington but to change the culture of Washington, and the media is part of it.” Auletta draws on dozens of conversations with Administration officials and Washington reporters to illustrate how this mission has not been entirely successful, as both the President and the press struggle to deal with the new media landscape.

Auletta writes, “The news cycle is getting shorter — to the point that there is no pause, only the constancy of the Web and the endless argument of cable. This creates pressure to entertain or perish, which has fed the press’s dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict.”

* Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, tells Auletta, “What used to drive one or two days of coverage and questions is now readily subsumed every few hours.”
* David Axelrod tells Auletta, “There are some really good journalists there, really superb ones. But the volume of material they have to produce just doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for reflection.”
* The New York Times’ Peter Baker says, “We are, collectively, much like eight-year-olds chasing a soccer ball. Instead of finding ways of creating fresh, original, high-impact journalism, we’re way too eager to chase the same story everyone else is chasing, which is too often the easy story and too often the simplistic story — and too often the story that misses what’s going on.”
* NBC’s chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, in a typical day does eight to sixteen standup interviews for NBC or MSNBC; hosts his new show, “The Daily Rundown”; appears regularly on “Today” and “Morning Joe”; tweets or posts on his Facebook page eight to ten times; and composes three to five blog posts. “We’re all wire-service reporters now,” he says.
* The former White House communications director Anita Dunn says, “When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.”
* Jay Carney, Vice-President Joe Biden’s spokesman, tells Auletta that budget considerations now keep reporters from travelling with politicians. “Eventually, there’s a loss of what the public knows.”

“This White House, like others, does its best to manipulate press coverage,” Auletta writes, and is known for its discipline.

* Regarding the Obama team’s ability to stay on-message, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos says, “You can cover a story and talk to four or five high-level officials on the same story. . . . There might be a slight difference in tone, but the message is always the same.”
* Rahm Emanuel, the White House’s chief of staff, sees press coverage as “a political strategy,” Baker says. “He’s as relentless in working reporters as he is in working congressmen. He cajoles, lobbies, berates, and trades information because he understands it’s better to work with the media than to shut us out.”
* “People approach their news consumption the way they approach their iPod: you download the songs you like and listen to them when you want to listen to them,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, tells Auletta. “That infects our strategy in where the President goes and where he doesn’t.”
* In the campaign, David Axelrod says, “you want to be responsible,” but “by and large the only thing you have to worry about is getting elected. In the White House, you have to deal with the events of the day.”

“But being the most transparent White House in history doesn’t mean the media is given the full access it was led to expect,” Auletta writes.

* Noting that the Administration has cut back the frequency of the usual morning “press gaggle” at the White House, the former press secretary Michael McCurry says, “They successfully cut off the impromptu access the media had before.”
* Dunn tells Auletta, “For us, transparency has never meant that we put our internal decision-making on display. We didn’t during the campaign. We try not to here. Transparency is what the decision is, and why it was made. The process by which it was arrived at is not central.”

“Obama’s efforts to reason with the press have at times given way to outright combat,” such as with Fox News, Auletta writes.

* The intent of excluding the network from a tour of five back-to-back morning shows in September, 2009, “was to send a message to the rest of the press corps,” Dunn says. This message, a correspondent at another network concedes, “has had some effect.”
* Major Garrett, Fox’s chief White House correspondent, insists that he and Fox are not being punished by the Administration, but adds, “The door is not shut for me. It’s just not opened first for me.” When Auletta asks Garrett whether he felt torn between his journalism and his network, he does not answer for a full twenty-seven seconds. “The human answer,” he finally says, “is that I do the best I can.”

Auletta notes that some members of the press corps, as well some Administration insiders, question aspects of the Obama press strategy.

* Chuck Todd thinks that Robert Gibbs and the White House “have been slow on political stories. Everything with this Administration has been reactive.”
* Axelrod concedes that there are limits to the effectiveness of using the President on every message. “We’ve got the greatest running back of all time, so the tendency is to want to hand off to him on every play. We need to involve all of the other members of the team. If I were to rethink the last year, I’d like to spread the load around a little and use other members of the Administration.”

In some cases, the Administration has been able to circumvent the mainstream media. Beginning in the campaign, Obama’s team has had a “superior grasp of new media,” Auletta writes, and has used it to connect directly with citizens. Pfeiffer says that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allowed the campaign to “go around the filter” of the press. But Auletta reports that, in an age of instant news, both the White House and the media have lost control.

* When Sarah Palin claimed that the Democratic health-care bill would institute “death panels” to determine who received care, “we thought it was absurd,” Pfeiffer says, “and there was a perhaps naïve view on our part that, if a major political figure says something that is entirely untrue and ridiculous, the press would treat it as untrue and ridiculous.”
* Auletta writes that, in the debate over the health-care bill, “the White House lost control of its message, as David Axelrod acknowledges.” “We’ve always done better when the story did not center on congressional wrangling,” Axelrod tells him.

Reporters seem unaffected by Obama’s criticism of their methods.
* Garrett acknowledges that “there’s more than a grain of truth” to Obama’s criticism. But at times, he says, “this critique of the media is entirely self-serving. It’s designed to get us back on our heels, to make us tentative about legitimate lines of inquiry.”

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