Obama's Revenge: New Yorker Reporter Excluded From Press Plane For Overseas Trip

07/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It led with the report that Lara Logan had scored the first overseas sit-down with Barack Obama, but here's the most interesting nugget from yesterday's Mike Allen piece about the trip:

Forty journalists, including such leading correspondents as Dan Balz of The Washington Post, will be aboard his plane for next week's swing through Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England.

The campaign received 200 requests for press seats on the plane.

Among those for whom there was no room was Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent of The New Yorker. The campaign, which was furious about the magazine's satirical cover this week, cited space constraints in turning him away.

Wow. So it's gonna be like that, is it? Retribution for unfavorable coverage is a chilling thing to contemplate — literally, as in, it carries with it the very real risk of chilling bold, outspoken coverage. Whatever one thinks of the New Yorker cover — that it was clear satire that clearly lampooned ridiculous rumors, that it went way overboard, that it was a comedic misfire — a robust press can't operate under threat of reprisal for unwelcome items.

Yes, I know, it happens every day (and, some would argue, pretty much every day of the last eight years). Even so, it sends a clear — and worrisome — signal from the Obama campaign: If we don't like it, man, will you know it. (And presumably it will hurt, like being excluded from The Trip Of The Century is surely meant to do.) Adulatory Rolling Stone covers beget adulatory Rolling Stone covers — with interviews, and that goes double for Newsweek (that's literally; yesterday on Reliable Sources, Howie Kurtz counted five of them). But otherwise, should the media fear a freeze-out?

(I should note here, too, that the media is not exactly freewheeling in how it covers Obama — early on in the primary campaign I noted that people were more careful when writing/speaking of Obama, and over the ensuing months we saw clearly how quickly the outrage-tripwires were triggered when people misspoke, or "misspoke").

This incident is different from Obama's reluctance to appear on Fox News, by the way — one should not confuse his disinclination to take up Sean Hannity's challenge with his campaign's snub of Lizza and the New Yorker, because the New Yorker has a distinctly different record of coverage.* Indeed, were one to look beyond the cover last week, one would have found an essay by Hendrik Hertzberg defending Obama from the recent charges of flip-flopping (and by the way, that chatter was driven clear off the table during New Yorker-gate — that's good for Obama).

In his interview with me, New Yorker editor David Remnick pointed out that the magazine had published "three very long, extensive profiles of Barack Obama and any number of Comment pieces, and I think it adds up to detailed, fair, insightful coverage." More generally, the magazine has been reliably tough on Republicans and the Bush administration (indeed, I agree with Glynnis MacNicol that the New Yorker banner atop the magazine was all the caption necessary to adequately frame the cover). Regardless of whether the Obama campaign agrees with that — they obviously don't, despite Obama's shrug to Larry King on CNN that it was "just a cartoon" — it was not enough to justify the petty exclusion of the New Yorker from the press corps.

The irony is that the person Heismanned here was Lizza, who just wrote a 15,000 word piece about what Obama learned about hardscrabble politics on his upward arc in Chicago. According to a Chicago pol interviewed by Lizza, he earned a reputation that "'you're not going to punk me, you're not going to roll me over, you're not going to jam me.'" That seems to be the message the Obama campaign was sending here.

Or maybe, like Ari Fleischer once warned, they would just like people to watch what they say.

UPDATE: Many of the comments have objected to the suggestion that Lizza was "banned" from the plane, saying that inference took the conclusion a step too far. It's a fair point, so I have changed it to "excluded" in the headline above to more strictly describe the situation.

The quote that the post is based on, from Mike Allen at the Politico, states three facts: That Lizza was excluded from the plane, that the Obama camp was "furious" at the New Yorker cover, and that the campaign had cited space constraints for the exclusion. My piece was based on the conclusion that the decision was a result of that anger over the cover, and went from there. This is not a proven fact — indeed an entirely separate reason was cited by the Obama campaign — and I thought that was made clear but should have stated that this was my conclusion (shared by others here, here and here). I also should have provided more of a basis for it, namely that Lizza has been out front in covering Obama for years, not only for the New Yorker (see also here) but for the New Republic (see here), GQ (see here) and the Atlantic, in Obama's first national profile (see here). He's also been closely covering the campaign trail more generally (see here and here and here). Of course there is an argument that, if 200 journalists applied for 40 spots, the exclusion could well have been legitimate; I feel that Lizza's long record of coverage militated strongly in favor of inclusion, and I should have added a paragraph to that effect.

Either way, this piece was based on my conclusion, and I thought that was apparent, but I am happy to make that explicit in this update. My reaction to Allen's comment was similar to my reaction when John McCain excluded the New York Times from the group of publications permitted to review his medical records — that it seemed unusual, and pointed. The upshot remains the same: Retribution for unfavorable coverage is a chilling thing to contemplate. Political campaigns are hyper-aware of the signals they send, and where that is one, I think it merits mention.

*Point of clarification: Obama has appeared on FNC news shows many times during this campaign cycle, and has been interviewed by people like Chris Wallace, Major Garret, Brett Baier, and Alexis Glick on shows including "Fox & Friends," "Fox News Sunday" and "Hannity & Colmes." However, there have been a number of incidents where Obama has appeared, or been cast as, less willing to go on the network (the O'Reilly producer shoving an Obama aide, the FNS countdown clock (which Fox News itself described as a "two-year silent treatment" toward the show), his recent singling out of Hannity regarding attacks on his wife (wherein he included Fox News with the "conservative press"). I did not mean to suggest that Obama had boycotted the network by any means, nor that it was not a place for Democrats (see evidence to the contrary here) or an audience Democrats need to directly address (see Howard Wolfson here). However, as a general proposition, I do stand by the phrasing above.

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