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A Press Critic President

President Obama aboard Air Force One, reading his tablet computer/Flickr photo by The White House

President Barack Obama regularly reads news media and has developed into a kind of critic of the press, the New York Times reports. The feature story describes the routine in which he consumes news and what he finds to be wrong with media.

“Privately and publicly, Amy Chozick of the Times writes, “Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.” She adds, he believes “reporters should not give equal weight to both sides of an argument when one side is factually incorrect. He frequently cites the coverage of health care and the stimulus package as examples, according to aides familiar with the meetings.”
The critique is not necessarily remarkable. In fact, Sen. John Kerry was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” just over a year ago and stated:

…The media in America has a bigger responsibility than it’s exercising today. The media has got to begin to not give equal time or equal balance to an absolutely absurd notion just because somebody asserts it or simply because somebody says something which everybody knows is not factual.”

It doesn’t deserve the same credit as a legitimate idea about what you do. And the problem is everything is put into this tit-for-tat equal battle and America is losing any sense of what’s real, of who’s accountable, of who is not accountable, of who’s real, who isn’t, who’s serious, who isn’t?…

Any casual viewing of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart would introduce someone to an array of reasons why the media deserves to be sharply critiqued. And Jeff Daniels’ news anchor character, Will McAvoy, on HBO’s The Newsroom has “rules,” which reflect this understanding that a staggering amount of fact-free, gossip and trivial information is being pushed out by television news shows. It’s increasingly conventional wisdom that the media has degenerated into purveyors of nonsense.

Now, is there anything exceptional about a president who may have developed into a media critic while holding office?

As Chozick describes, Obama “begins his day upstairs in the White House reading the major newspapers, including his hometown Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, mostly on his iPad through apps rather than their Web sites.” He’ll skim articles that his “aides email to him.” On his iPad and in print, he will read The Economist and The New Yorker during the day. While on Air Force One flights, he will catch up on the news. But, he rarely watches television news (and, for those keeping track of this president’s news diet, he “rarely” reads blogs because they make solutions to issues seem exceedingly simple).

In the 21st century and with an increasingly fractured media landscape, it should not be surprising that a president would want to read as much of the content being published by establishment media outlets as possible. This is essentially akin to an analyst on Wall Street who spends a number of hours going through the news to see if there are any signs or warnings that might be useful when making trades in the stock market. It is emblematic of the savviness, which he believes he has brought to the job. It is indicative of the ideological pragmatism, which he has promoted by seeking out counterterrorism policies where the possibility of being boxed in politically is reduced (e.g. having the final word on assassinations of “terror suspects” on “kill lists,” not pursuing a healthcare public option from the beginning, making certain he is seen as a post-racial president—a leader of all people, etc). Thus, it is not surprising that the president would want to read as much news as possible—what he considered to be drivers and influencers of debate and discussion—so he, himself, would not be blindsided by any lines of thinking or any reported story that might undermine the White House’s capabilities.

One could say most presidents in history have one way or another been press critics, whether their criticism was wise or not. Thomas Jefferson in 1807 told John Norvell, a newspaper editor and one of the first US senators from Michigan, “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.” William McKinley once called journalists he went to talk with a “congress of inventors.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt Roosevelt, according to author Ellen Fitzpatrick, “urged the press to cut out ‘the petty stuff’ and get their ‘shoulders behind’ the wheel of ‘national recovery.’ He challenged editors and reporters to show some independence from conservative newspaper owners. They could do so, he stressed, by telling their readers both sides of the story in reporting on his New Deal initiatives. To do otherwise, Roosevelt insisted, ‘won’t hurt me’ but ‘may hurt’ about 125 million other people.”

Furthermore, the use of “new media” is not dissimilar from the way that FDR went on the radio to address the public without having to go through the press. Chozick notes:

He has hosted Twitter “town hall” sessions at the White House, a Google “hangout” and a discussion via LinkedIn. In May, Mr. Obama announced with 30 minutes advance notice that he would answer questions on Twitter, a move that rattled the White House press corps. “Today’s #WHChat was announced hours ago,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest wrote on Twitter. “POTUS answering q’s was last-minute surprise.”

FDR held less formal press conferences too. He would sit down with groups of journalists (and became known for assigning less favored reporters to the “Dunce Club”).

Additionally, a statement from Obama that his presidency has lacked the “effective narrative” necessary to create real change suggests he might believe his administration could be doing more to steer news reporting:

“The mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” Mr. Obama said in an interview last month with CBS’s Charlie Rose. “But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.”

There have been groups and people who have tried to tell this “story.” Recall, former press secretary Robert Gibbs went on the offensive August 2010 and said what Obama has done and is doing would never be “good enough” for the “professional left.” This prompted MSNBC’s Ed Schultz to respond, “Day in and day out they ought to be on cable in the sound chamber of America winning the cultural war and pushing the progressive agenda.

They don’t do that. That’s what I have a problem with. Keith Olbermann, before MSNBC had fired him, declared, “If, Mr. President, you have fallen into the trap of equating “The Professional Left” and “The Professional Right” of the false equivalency of MSNBC and Fox News — you are going to spend the rest of the time in the White House curled up in a churlish ball in the corner wondering what happened to your encore.” Writer Glenn Greenwald said it was common for White Houses to have this “siege bunker mentality” and mentioned Richard Nixon.

Attacks on the “professional left” from Obama (or even Democrats) were not limited to this instance (see the above link for more examples). A narrative could have been told but the White House went after the storytellers, and is it any wonder that he wishes more Americans understood what he thinks he has been trying to accomplish as president?

In conclusion, the administration has been no friend of the press. Sarcasm or critical comments often come from the president and are directed toward reporters. The president dodges questions, plays favorites with reporters right in front of other reporters, refusing to engage reporters then complaining when unfavorable stories are published and White House aides will even retaliate against reporters, who write stories they do not like. On top of that, politicians have whipped up hysteria amongst politicians over “leaks” and, as the Senate and House advocate for measures to clamp down on the free flow of information in a manner that will truly impact journalism, the White House offers no sensible alternatives or bold condemnation of the bipartisan frenzy.

There should be no characterization of his media critiques as something that exemplifies a respect for the tradition of news in the United States. The criticism resonates because it is mostly true, but Obama is really concerned about his ability to project messaging from his administration. He is worried about his power and ability to move the policies and proposals he chooses to make part of his agenda.

What he is saying is basically along the same lines as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in March 2011 on Al Jazeera English. She said the media organization is beating US media and winning the “information war” and made these comments because she was worried that “youth” in the Middle East and other parts of the world were learning things about the US that undermined the understanding of America that she thought people of the world should really have.

Only the aspects of media that he perceives as complicating his ability to govern—like the striving for “objectivity” in reporting that produces “false balance”—bother him. Other problems plaguing the press, such as the death of newspapers and media consolidation, have no impact or are insignificant to the daily work he carries out as president.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."