An Angry White House Press Corps

Over the weekend, I heard a segment on NPR’s “On the Media” in which co-host Bob Garfield explored the Obama Administration’s direct-to-constituent, earned and “owned” media strategies.

The piece was filled with several mainstream journalists from the White House press pool complaining about their lack of access. The piece was aptly titled “Frustration in the White House Press Corps.” Take a listen below:

The segment no doubt was catalyzed by a caustically headlined piece by the increasingly partisan political blog Politico titled “Obama: The Puppet Master.” (Print, and now digital, still begets broadcast.) Co-authors Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen describe

“…a White House that 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). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.”

They grouse further that:

“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.”

Aside from the fact that today’s most engaging blogs have darn good (i.e., histrionics-prone) headline writers, I don’t think what Politico reports is much of a revelation. Every politician, let alone corporate executive, strives to ensure that his or her POV resonates clearly. PR professionals are paid to help their charges both crystallize their messages and more effectively navigate the earned media landscape — with media training, staged events, and the parsing of which journalists will be granted individual access.  Politico notes:

“The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on “The View”?

With the advent of owned media, and direct-to-consumer social channels like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+, who can blame newsmakers (or this President) for taking their message directly to constituents?

This is especially true in an age when many new-age (and some old-age) journalists simply fail to “get it right.” Some reporters are partisan, others serve more as “referees,” thus creating false reporting equivalencies as James Fallows observes in this NPR segment (starting at :35) on broken government and the media’s broken coverage of it:


Today we learn that Buzzfeed’s partisan (and journalistically challenged) hack Zeke Miller, some two years out of college, is joining Time Magazine as a political “reporter.” (Is this journalistically failing up or failing down?)

Still why shouldn’t President Obama’s digitally and socially savvy communications team take its boss’s  message directly to the people, as they did recently via a Google Hangout?

I’m torn on this question, since I’ve written frequently about how a free and diligent press is vital to any modern democracy. Without an effective fourth estate to scrutinize newsmakers’ (sometimes dubious) pronouncements, we will sink into a political, social and economic morass driven by a low information public. (Just consider all those Tea Partiers who were swept into Congress in 2010.)

On the other hand, the number of high quality news organizations seems to be dwindling, or maybe just drowned out by the noise of today’s fragmented, ephemeral and cacophonous media environment. Then there’s the rise of partisan and headline-driven digital media who’ve gained greater authority in influencing the court of public opinion.

I do however fault the President’s communications consiglieres for increasingly sidestepping bona fide news organizations in an effort to advance the White House’s political agenda.  Granted, new social tools and channels make it easy to speak directly to the people, unfettered by reporters’ natural biases or a fabricated need for “equivalency.”

Still as a rule I still believe that if you have a solid (i.e., factually substantiated) message, PLUS a gifted (i.e., compelling) messenger, you will derive considerable benefit by also availing yourself to a journalistically credible/reliable news organization, i.e., NPR, The New York Times, the AP, Bloomberg News, PBS NewsHour, and CBS News for starters.

Message control is good, but there’s nothing like a positive story by a good reporter having done a good job.  They don’t call it “earned media” for nothing.

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