President Obama is frustrated by the national media’s obsession with silly stories, Time‘s Michael Scherer reports.
We are past, for the moment, the White House “war” on Fox, such as it was. (Obama did an interview with Fox News’ Major Garrett a few weeks back, and General Petraeus is on Fox News Sunday today, with close Obama ally Dick Durbin.) Summer is gone too, and with it the “wee weed up” “silly season” of political coverage that Obama and his aides regularly decried. But President Obama’s disdain for certain features of the national media remains alive and well. In a little noticed aside at the end of Thursday’s jobs summit, Obama effectively painted the press as an obstacle to not just the much-needed economic recovery, but to America recovering its 20th Century position as an economic powerhouse.
On the aforementioned Asia trip, Obama only took two questions from the U.S. print press corps over the course of seven days, one in a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and one with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. Obama did sit down interviews in Beijing with CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News. ABC News got an interview with Obama shortly before he departed for Asia.
Through both the campaign and his presidency, Obama has made little secret of his disdain for some of the horse-race, tabloid elements of the press corps–though his political and communications staff are not above sometimes exploiting those same tendencies for their own benefit. Obama meets regularly off-the-record and on-the-record meals with columnists who his advisers see as more intellectually substantive (or politically influential). But he has not done the same with beat reporters, whom, as he suggested Thursday, sometimes do a disservice to the country with the journalistic equivalent of ambulance chasing.
The actual substance of the president’s criticism of the press — that “our political debate doesn’t match up with what we need to do and where we need to go” — is not only mild but it’s an analysis I share.
I am, however, a bit troubled by the continuous meme perpetuated by the Obama camp going back to the campaign that any criticism of Obama or attempt to talk about something other than what Obama wants to talk about at any given moment in time is somehow illegitimate. The degree to which this is merely a cynical strategy or genuine arrogance and hubris, I haven’t figured out.
While the president has enormous influence in shaping the public debate, the notion that he should be the sole decider is dangerous.
To be sure, presidents have complained about the press as long as I can remember. But it’s usually on the basis that the media are ideologically biased and portraying their agenda in an unfair light. It’s the political equivalent of coaches working the refs to get better calls.
Obama has taken it to a new level* to such an extent that a difference in degree may be a difference in kind. Not only is his team spending an inordinate amount of time going after the Fox News network and Republican talk radio hosts but they’re questioning the entire agenda of the mainstream press corps. They’re also not so subtly punishing those who dare question him and rewarding those who follow his agenda. Given the need of the White House press corps to report on the president on a day in, day out basis, that amounts to tremendous pressure to tow the administration line.
*UPDATE: A commenter points out much more egregious conduct by Woodrow Wilson. Which, of course, reminds me of far more egregious conduct on the part of some of our early presidents, notably the Alien and Sedition Acts. Rather than “new,” I should simply say he’s raised the bar compared to presidents in the post-Watergate era.