Last week's feud between White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and the so-called "professional left" did more than just open a window into the fraying relations between the president and his base. It provided one of the sharpest illustrations to date as to how an ever-changing news culture has challenged even the most press-savvy of operations.
There has always been a misleading pretense to the way the White House relates to the Fourth Estate. While Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe famously lampooned Politico and Time magazine's Mark Halperin during the election, behind the scenes aides read those insider outlets religiously. While Gibbs often projects a sense of detachment from cable news chatter, in private administration officials are quite attentive to the news being broadcast.
Indeed, what made Gibbs' comments on the "professional left" noteworthy was not that it chipped away at an image of a White House unaffected by the coverage it receives (that image already had many holes). It's that they suggested a somewhat obsolete view of what kind of coverage they were getting.
Increasingly, press veterans say, the content aired on cable resembles material traditionally found online. No longer is the focus on securing interviews with top officials or reading the day's top stories. Rather, value is found in breaking news and hosting debates that draw an audience.
"Cable has traditionally been talent-driven," explained MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, a chief purveyor of the new news structure. "Fuck the talent, pardon my language. But if you have the audience you win. I'm not talking about economics even. I'm talking about the soul of the show."
"It is absolutely a totally different environment and agenda," said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic communications hand. "In the old days, the print reporters were the print reporters. They would go around, write stories ... the TV people would read those stories and decided what went on air that night. It was an orderly process. Now there is no order."
What's resulted from this orderless environment is the type of news coverage that has drawn the White House's ire, whether it consists of horse-race chatter or rumor-mongering. On Thursday, Pew Research produced a poll showing that of the 20 percent of the public who think the president is a Muslim, 60 percent said they learned as much from the media.
"If you are the White House, how do you deal with that?" asked Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's former press secretary.
Even at MSNBC -- a network ostensibly more aligned with the administration on philosophical matters than its two competitors -- the story lines have been difficult for the administration to take. Over the past few weeks, there has been a consistent drumbeat of progressive displeasure over the job the president is doing. The topics and tone tend to reflect the type of copy published on the web and, not surprisingly, it has been an online story that often leads the news.
For the past few weeks, Cenk Uygur has played a pinch-hitter role for MSNBC, guest hosting for anchors and doing panels for daytime programs. Both he and others have described his style as "rants" -- the type of opinionated news reporting and analysis that is meant to entertain or infuriate viewers depending on their disposition. It's an approach that has pushed the envelope editorially. But it's also one that the brass seems comfortable with.
"We are getting great ratings," Uygur explained to the Huffington Post.
Indeed, if nothing else, Uygur has proven he can draw an audience. Starting in 2002, he managed to turn a relatively bare-bones progressive radio show into an Internet behemoth. The Young Turks program currently has a daily audience of 600,000 just through YouTube. Monthly, that figure is 17.8 million.
Under the informal structure of the cable news industry, a platform like The Young Turks is not the ideal perch from which to grab a high-profile job. But the numbers are difficult to ignore. Executives at MSNBC brought him in for formal discussions to fill their 10 p.m. slot -- an opening he didn't get. Ratigan, however, took notice and started slotting him in for guest appearances. Uygur's quick ascendance from there was based on the notion that you don't fix something that's not broken. With some small tinkering, he applied the bombastic "truth-telling" style he honed on the web into a cable news format.
"We don't play by the old media rules," he said. "This is, in some sense, larger than cable news or political news. It is about showing that an online audience is for real."
"Cenk had a unique situation where he was able to really drive, exploit and take advantage of a market for news and opinion in a world that had a huge appetite for information but wasn't being supplied with it," offered Ratigan. "He also understood how information was being consumed and said I'm going to build a product that builds into that."
Part of that product involves deeply rankling the White House. It was Uygur who proposed a panel discussion on whether Obama is worse than Bush on civil liberties. He also hosted the debate about whether the administration was feeble in its push for health care reform.
"I think the fact that we started online and on radio greatly liberated us," he says of those segments. "We didn't have the restrictions of television, we didn't have to worry about access if we were going to have to worry if the administration would be mad at us."
But not everyone has celebrated the less restrictive news environment or the anti-administration zeitgeist. Within the progressive community, there is earnest concern that the criticism being leveled at the president -- originating online and making its way through the cable news structure -- is at once unreasonable and unhelpful.
"One of the things that helped President Obama become president was the fact that you had a progressive infrastructure created in the Bush years, from the Center for American Progress to a more heightened counterweight to Fox in MSNBC, to a strong progressive infrastructure on blogs and elsewhere," said Neera Tanden, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress and a guest on one of Uygur's segments. "Now, if a large chunk of that infrastructure is aiming its fuselage at the White House as opposed to the right, that can ultimately weaken progressive goals. I recognize the need to push the White House and one of the problems we have is the White House demonstrates it needs to be pushed on issues... But when it comes to a personal crusade and more undermining of his leadership I think it can do real damage."
Tanden's point is echoed by White House allies, who argue that the president's achievements simply can't be labeled piecemeal. To do so is to try and convince voters that political utopia is actually possible if you just want it hard enough.
"It becomes an echo chamber," said Dee Dee Myers. "The left is all reading each other's blogs and winding each other up about these things... We can all sit here and doing Monday morning quarterbacking but the fact of the matter is the president has accomplished an awful lot. Look at the polls, he spent his political capital."
For his part, Uygur doesn't pretend to be unconcerned with the political ramifications of his program. He wears his progressive politics on his sleeve, openly pines for certain legislative outcomes and levels criticism with an eye on the subject. When Gibbs complained about the "professional left," Uygur said there was a "five percent chance" that he was the object of the press secretary's anger. And yet, when cautioned about the effect he could be having, he offers what seems to be either defiance or nonchalance.
"I think they are going the wrong direction in 28 different ways. Lets be clear, that doesn't mean Obama is not liberal enough. It doesn't mean he is wrong on every issue or worse than Bush in every way. But just because he is not those things doesn't mean he is A-OK... The reason Gibbs went after those examples is because he is not right on the subject matter."