Obama Revamps White House Communications

Danny Glover reports on President Obama’s total restructuring of the White House message machine in a piece ominously titled “The Cost of Controlling The Press.”

Barack Obama’s White House is spending more than $80,000 a week to staff its old and new media offices. Add the price of speechwriters and the White House communications tab reaches nearly $100,000 a week, or nearly $5 million a year-and that is for salaries alone.

[…]

Although other staffers undoubtedly did work on the White House website and other Internet projects, Bush’s dedicated new media team appears to have consisted of two people-a specialty media director who earned $84,000 a year and a website assistant who earned $34,000. By contrast, Obama has the 11 employees in the Office of Public Engagement and another nine aides with titles such as new media director, new media creative director, deputy director of video and e-mail content/design lead. Those nine earn nearly $700,000 a year combined.

One has to read well into the piece, however, to understand that this is mostly a reshuffle of existing resources:

Overall, Obama is spending about 12 percent more for his communications operation than Bush-$4.97 million compared with $4.44 million.

So, while the White House spending nearly $5 million in taxpayer dollars for propaganda  seems outrageous on its face, it’s essentially par for the course. Presumably, the increase is a combination of cost-of-living adjustments and a reallocation of staff from other areas to communications. After all, Congress controls presidential spending on staff.

More troubling: Glover notes that the new communications team has managed to bypass the already Obama-friendly press on numerous occasions, including staged “town hall” meetings with preselected guests and even disinviting the press entirely from mundane events like photo-ops with championship sports teams, preferring to produce their own videos for release on the Web.

I don’t like it.  But, again, it’s a natural evolution of the system.  Ronald Reagan’s team was legendary for limiting access to the president and ensuring that their preferred sound byte was pretty much all the press had to report in a given day.  Bill Clinton famously bypassed the more difficult talk shows during the 1992 campaign, instead going on talk radio and late night comedy shows.  George W. Bush and his team gave more time to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other friendly outlets.   Obama is taking that to the next level using social media techniques that PR firms have been advocating for their clients for years.

Again, this is probably not healthy.  The press is an important check on our politicians and, to the extent the politicians can bypass the press to get their message out, we lose that check.  It’s especially problematic at times, like the present, when the White House and Capitol Hill are controlled by the same party.

It’s quite possible, however, that the press will grow tired of being manipulated in this way and go out and do some actual reporting.  Hanging around the press room for scraps isn’t really journalism, after all.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Prediction:

    The usual suspects will see this:

    President Obama’s total restructuring of the White House message machine in a piece ominously titled “The Cost of Controlling The Press.”

    and quit reading and so will miss this:

    [I]t’s a natural evolution of the system. Ronald Reagan’s team was legendary for limiting access to the president and ensuring that their preferred sound byte was pretty much all the press had to report in a given day. Bill Clinton famously bypassed the more difficult talk shows during the 1992 campaign, instead going on talk radio and late night comedy shows. George W. Bush and his team gave more time to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other friendly outlets. Obama is taking that to the next level using social media techniques that PR firms have been advocating for their clients for years.

  2. sam says:

    And BTW, James, does this differ in kind from a congress critter’s use of the franking privelege to bombard his or her constituents with the critter’s propaganda? I mean this as a serious question. After all, the goal of an elected official is to stay an elected official, no?

  3. James Joyner says:

    does this differ in kind from a congress critter’s use of the franking privelege to bombard his or her constituents with the critter’s propaganda?

    Mostly in degree, I’d say. Then again, Congressmen (especially in the House) tend to fly below the radar screen of the press, anyway, so it’s much easier for them to bypass by mailings and by doing controlled photo-ops.

  4. Hyscience says:

    Another ominous sign from the White House…

    ABC News White House reporter Jake Tapper wondered, “Do Obama White House officials think their media coverage isn’t flattering enough?” Apparently, the answer to that question is that they believe it’s not, and they’re willing to spend big bucks …

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    The usual suspects will see this:

    [I]t’s a natural evolution of the system. Ronald Reagan’s team was legendary for limiting access to the president and ensuring that their preferred sound byte was pretty much all the press had to report in a given day. Bill Clinton famously bypassed the more difficult talk shows during the 1992 campaign, instead going on talk radio and late night comedy shows. George W. Bush and his team gave more time to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other friendly outlets. Obama is taking that to the next level using social media techniques that PR firms have been advocating for their clients for years.

    Quit thinking and miss this:

    More troubling: Glover notes that the new communications team has managed to bypass the already Obama-friendly press on numerous occasions, including staged “town hall” meetings with preselected guests and even disinviting the press entirely from mundane events like photo-ops with championship sports teams, preferring to produce their own videos for release on the Web.

    And this:

    Again, this is probably not healthy. The press is an important check on our politicians and, to the extent the politicians can bypass the press to get their message out, we lose that check. It’s especially problematic at times, like the present, when the White House and Capitol Hill are controlled by the same party.

  6. steve says:

    The press have largely become stenographers when it comes to dealing directly with politicians. They value access so much, they are not willing to ask tougher questions. This is a long term trend as you note.

    The advent of web news has some potential, but it is so polarized right now that it makes it even more difficult to get good news sometimes. Both sides are clearly more interested in scoring points and getting web hits than intellectual honesty. Some sites make some attempts and for those I am grateful.

    Steve

  7. sam says:

    Well, my point, and James’s, I think, was that’s the nature of modern politics in the info age. As for the “troubling” aspect, I’m not sure. The “press” emcompasses far more today than print, and I don’t see any dearth of criticism of the president’s policies. Case in point, Glover’s column on the AIM web site. Examples can be multiplied.

  8. JKB says:

    Bypassing the press to get their message out is not really a bad thing. Propaganda is and always will be with us. It is when their propaganda is filtered through the adoring press that is worrisome as it give it the appearance of having been processed with skepticism.

    One thing we know is that Obama’s staff has not had to earn their salaries compared to Bush’s. It remains to be seen how they will bear up if/when the adoration wanes. The MSM “reporters” fell in love with Obama defending him like a jealous lover and willing to put out whenever and however he wanted. They are now going through the booty call phase where they wait hoping he’ll use them sometime. Some have even started pushing for mistress status with a stipend to keep them available nearby. But it remains to be seen if Obama can string them along for four years or if they’ll go fatal attraction on him once the they feel ignored.

  9. It’s quite possible, however, that the press will grow tired of being manipulated in this way and go out and do some actual reporting.

    Joyner, you cock-eyed optimist.

  10. floyd says:

    It’s obvious that a paragon of virtue and celebrity Icon like Obama would only want to get the truth out and defend himself from the hostile Media without manipulation.
    Wait…. Does that mean Axelrod’s propaganda machine is working….. HEY!!!!

  11. odograph says:

    Compare a 12% in communication spending, softball questions, or “disinviting” the press, to the next post, “How to Quash a Protest.”

    Then decide how well the word “propaganda” really fits, above.

  12. Just curious, how much did Woodward and Bernstein learn from official briefings? Journalism as an investigative discipline is almost dead. Journalism as celebrity public relations, punditry and propaganda is ascendent.

  13. James Joyner says:

    Joyner, you cock-eyed optimist.

    In hindsight, “quite possible” is a stretch. Perhaps “not totally inconceivable” or “within the realm of possibility” would have been more accurate.

  14. Michael says:

    Just curious, how much did Woodward and Bernstein learn from official briefings? Journalism as an investigative discipline is almost dead.

    Agreed, if the press can’t act as a check on the government without having access to photo ops with championship sports teams, then the press can’t act as a check on the government period.

    How much of the information the press used to hammer Bush was given to them at press conferences? He didn’t exactly break the news about torture, wiretaps and rendition to them.

  15. The press acts as a check on the government? Good one. I think the check bounced.

  16. steve says:

    “The press acts as a check on the government?”

    It should and could. It seems clear to me that politicians have responded many times to events documented in the press. There ares till occasional investigative pieces. I think to be a little fair to the press, we should acknowledge that hit pieces sell better than real reporting. It is also probably a lot harder to sell news now that half of the population will disbelieve anything you say no matter how well documented.

    Steve

  17. Wayne says:

    “It is also probably a lot harder to sell news now that half of the population will disbelieve anything you say no matter how well documented.”

    Whose fault is that? The MSM have been caught telling lies and promoting agendas often and often without shame. They have even been caught using phony documents and pictures. They slant their coverage without any questioning of the ethics in doing so and give such lame excuses such as “it is what the public wants”.

  18. Eric Florack says:

    So, while the White House spending nearly $5 million in taxpayer dollars for propaganda seems outrageous on its face, it’s essentially par for the course. Presumably, the increase is a combination of cost-of-living adjustments and a reallocation of staff from other areas to communications. After all, Congress controls presidential spending on staff.

    More troubling: Glover notes that the new communications team has managed to bypass the already Obama-friendly press on numerous occasions, including staged “town hall” meetings with preselected guests and even disinviting the press entirely from mundane events like photo-ops with championship sports teams, preferring to produce their own videos for release on the Web.

    Hmmmm.

    How to Quash a Protest – Step Two: Conrtol the message.

    Gee.

  19. Michael says:

    Oh come on Eric, it’s not like the White House is preventing the press from reporting on a story, they’re just not inviting them over to talk about it.

    I fail to see how not giving the Administration’s side of the story to the press, somehow means that the press will only report the Administration’s side of the story.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    re: Eric Florack | July 8, 2009 | 02:36 pm

    And this administration wanting to control the message, just like every other administration that preceded it is so shocking in what way? Unless, of course, it is your goal to make a direct connection between the president and the apparatchiks in Beijing…gee, indeed…

  21. An Interested Party says:

    re: Eric Florack | July 8, 2009 | 02:36 pm

    And this administration wanting to control the message, just like every other administration that preceded it is so shocking in what way? Unless, of course, it is your goal to make a direct connection between the president and the apparatchiks in Beijing…gee, indeed…

  22. Wayne says:

    I don’t condemn the administration for attempting to control the message unless they try it through something like the fairness doctrine or using government agencies outside of the White House to punish those who they can’t control. My problem is with the MSM allowing them to succeed outside of a valid National Security reason. Not that they had a problem with hurting National Security when Bush was in Office.

  23. Eric Florack says:

    Oh come on Eric, it’s not like the White House is preventing the press from reporting on a story, they’re just not inviting them over to talk about it.

    hmmm.

    During a presidential campaign, there’s no such thing as over-sharing. Barack Obama promised to run the most transparent White House in history

    I don’t condemn the administration for attempting to control the message unless they try it through something like the fairness doctrine or using government agencies outside of the White House to punish those who they can’t control.

    Who owns NBC, again?

    nless, of course, it is your goal to make a direct connection between the president and the apparatchiks in Beijing…gee, indeed…

    Just remarking on the similarities…

  24. Barry says:

    James: “One has to read well into the piece, however, to understand that this is mostly a reshuffle of existing resources:”

    Article: “Overall, Obama is spending about 12 percent more for his communications operation than Bush-$4.97 million compared with $4.44 million.”

    If I was teaching journalist, articles which contain numbers without context would be seriously marked down.

  25. […] K. Daniel Glover reports on the expanding White House communications team and its attempts to control media reports on the President.  James Joyner notes that this, while unhealthy, is not too dissimilar from previous presidencies and calls it a “natural evolution of the system.” […]