Politico: Obama’s a Puppet Master

Politico complains that Obama plays the press. Same as it ever was: Every president's played the press.

Politico’s Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen came out with a longread yesterday about a rift between the Obama administration and the Washington press corp. Specifically, the issue is about access to Obama. More specifically, about how the White House has conducted few interviews with establishment media.

In Vandehei’s and Allen’s eyes, Obama is a media “puppet master” who, along with his staff, “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).”

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 story is one of disruption. That is, disruption of an establishment press corp that feels slighted that the White House can – and does – go around them with its messaging by using social media and content marketing strategies. But there’s also a sense of entitlement permeating the piece.

For example, for all their handwringing that the president hasn’t given “an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years,” Vandehei and Allen point out the Obama does give frequent interviews. Matter of fact, 674 in his first term, over 500 more than George W Bush gave in his first term.

But these interviews aren’t with the right people. Instead, “they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.” Reporters who, in their estimation, would ask the tough and unpredictable questions. (See Allen’s  tough and unpredictable questions for George W Bush above from his 2008 one on one interview with the president.) 

And then there’s the complaint that the administration is creating content and taking that directly to the public rather than going through press intermediaries:

Still, the most unique twist by this White House has been the government’s generating and distributing of content.

A number of these techniques were on vivid display two weekends ago, when the White House released a six-month-old photo of the president shooting skeet, buttressing his claim in a New Republic interview that he fires at clay pigeons “all the time” at Camp David…

…The government created the content (the photo), released it on its terms (Twitter) and then used Twitter again to stoke stories about conservatives who didn’t believe Obama ever shot a gun in the first place.

All of which is to say, And?

In an age where everyone’s a publisher and everyone’s a brand, it would be surprising for a presidency not to employ these tools. In fact, they follow a long, if frustrating, history of political stagecraft and media manipulation.

In “Stagecraft and Statecraft: Advance and Media Events in Political Communication”, Dan Schill writes:

There is a complicated relationship between newsmakers and the journalists that cover their activities. [Philip] Seib reviews this relationship: “The journalists try to gather information, the politicians try to shape the news. This process tends to become a struggle for control over the information. Reporters can gather plenty of newsworthy material on their own, but they also need some cooperation from the candidates and staff members. Any major campaign will offer a rich diet of media events, but real news is often in short supply.” While the relationship can be adversarial, it is largely symbiotic – what is good for the candidate is usually also what is good for the reporter. Both campaigns and the news media want a compelling narrative, compelling pictures, and large audiences… Reporters rarely deviate from the news narrative that has been established. Especially at the presidential level, politicians can control the rules of engagement and “freeze out” reporters who do not follow those rules. According to [Tim] Cook, “Reporters, dependent on presidents’ cooperation, end up prisoners in the all but hermetically sealed pressroom, reluctant to roam far from their connection to fame and fortune in the news business. Instead of encouraging innovation and enterprise, the White House breeds concern among reporters about missing out on the story that everyone else is chasing.” Members of the news media should recognize this relationship and understand the factors that allow newsmakers to exploit this relationship, control the news agenda, and receive favorable coverage.

Go back to Timothy Crouse’s 1972 book, “Boys on the Bus,” about that year’s presidential campaign and reporters are complaining about “media events” and message control.

Or fast forward to the Reagan years and press complaints about Reagan’s mastery of political television and the importance of image over substance and you have, largely, the same phenomenon. It’s just different technology these days.

This isn’t to suggest that sit downs with the president aren’t important. They most certainly are. But the tug and pull between administrations and journalists is well known and well understood. It’s the journalist’s job to inform the public and if the only way they can do that is to get the coveted presidential interview they’re not doing that job well.  

To blame techniques such as social outreach and content creation by non-media actors is to cling to a traditional information flow that media modernity has long eclipsed.

We’re well into a new day and a new age. Instead of griping about it, change your tactics. There’s a whole lot of important reporting to do.

Related, Part 01: The Seven Secrets of Political Theater.

Related, Part 02The Staging of a Photo-Op.

Meantime: Here are selected questions by Politico’s Mike Allen during his 2008 interview with George W. Bush, as posted to Twitter by Gawker’s John Cook. Complete interview transcript via Politico.


A version of this article originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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