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Ankush Khardori Headshot

President Obama Meets the Press

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Well, that certainly didn't take long. Roughly a week into the presidency, Barack Obama and his team find themselves at odds with the White House press corps.

The dustups have been relatively modest, but they've been dramatized with the sort of flair reserved for media reporting. The "first spat," as the Times put it, involved the exclusion of photographers from Obama's first day in the Oval Office and his second swearing-in. Last Wednesday, reporters grumbled about a briefing conducted on background by two senior administration officials. The following afternoon, Obama paid a friendly visit to the White House press corps but demurred when asked a question by Jonathan Martin, a Politico reporter, about how his nomination of a former defense lobbyist for the position of deputy defense secretary was consistent with the tight restrictions on lobbyists in the new administration. Writing about the incident shortly afterward, Martin and a colleague pointedly reported that the new President "got agitated when he was faced with a substantive question." A separate piece on the Politico's site talked of "growing media frustration with Barack Obama's team."

And by the end of the first week, Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Time and Radar, was complaining that Obama had "Bush's touch with the White House press corps" and that he was "perfecting the moves" of the last President. Most bizarrely, she claimed that Obama had appeared in the White House press area last Thursday with the intention of making "whichever reporter dared to ask a question ...look like an asshole."

That there would be incidents like these is not particularly surprising. In these first few months of the Obama administration, there is bound to be a certain level of discord between the White House and the press corps. Each side will be testing the other's limits, and the press will be going out of its way to avoid the appearance of being in the tank for Obama. The conflicts can partially be chalked up to what we might characterize as anxiety, the predictable result of these two large groups -- one elected and now governing in a time of crisis, the other notoriously self-entitled -- at last coming into contact.

But although it's inherently difficult to speculate this early in the game, we can very tentatively see the broad outlines of the Obama administration's approach to the media and, in particular, how it will stack up against the approach taken by the administration of George W. Bush. The evidence to date is necessarily limited and imperfect, but it suggests that even as the new occupants of the White House lift some of the Bush team's strategies, there will, on the whole, be a noticeably different relationship between the executive branch and the media. Rather than lamenting any perceived slights on the part of the new White House, members of the press would do better to recognize the changing dynamic and to reorient themselves so that they're best-positioned to take advantage of the new opportunities that the Obama administration may afford.

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Invariably, it seems, the first point of comparison for elite journalists exploring the Obama administration's press strategy is life under George W. Bush. The comparisons, on some level, are completely understandable -- the man just left the White House, after all -- but they tend to obscure much more than they illuminate, particularly at this early stage of Obama's tenure.

Writing last month in The New York Times Magazine, for instance, Mark Leibovich pointed to the Obama team's tight control of information during the campaign and drew a rough parallel between the "Obama model" of press relations and the "Bush model." Echoing that piece, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza claimed that the "husbanding of information by Obama's inner circle" was "Bush-like in its intensity." And the week before the inauguration, Time's James Poniewozik argued that Obama had "learned from Bush about dealing with the press" insofar as he "exercised tight message control, limited press availability and disregarded old-media courtship rituals." Indeed, according to David Plouffe, the Obama team itself referred during the campaign to the "Bush model" of communications to describe the small, close-knit group of campaign principals who closely guarded strategic information.

Yet there are differences between Obama and Bush that are both small and large, and they're clear enough that even a straightforward recitation of them can seem glib. We have yet to learn of a journalist, for example, who has been paid off, and thus far, there isn't a single reporter who's been told that he would have blood on his hands if he did his job. The Obama administration also has yet to display the willful, systematic disregard for the truth that marked much of the Bush era and, at least in its first week, has managed to avoid using the media in order to disseminate misinformation.

The differences in personnel are striking, as well. The personification of the Bush administration's disdain for the press was its longest-serving Press Secretary -- the comically inept and out-of-the-loop Scott McClellan. Things got better after McClellan left, but not by much. Robert Gibbs, by contrast, will retain his position as a close advisor to President Obama in addition to his role as the new Press Secretary. Which is to say: When Gibbs briefs the press, he may actually be able to expand beyond prepackaged talking points.

As for Obama's frequently-cited isolation from the media, that case has become much harder to make since Election Day. During the transition, he held more press conferences than any other incoming President, and he did high-profile interviews with the likes of Tom Brokaw and George Stephanopoulos. In the week leading up to his inauguration, the President sat down for lengthy interviews with CNN's John King, reporters at USA Today, and the editorial board of The Washington Post, to say nothing of the much-discussed off-the-record sessions with members of the elite commentariat.

It's true that the new administration has been dismissive of some of the old-media protocols. The Post's editorial page had been grousing about being ignored during the campaign, and the Times is still complaining about how it hasn't gotten an in-depth interview with the new President. But this apparent lack of interest in the old, informal rules seems to stem more from a desire on the part of the Obama team to assert their independence, rather than any generalized allergy to taking questions.

Those, at least, are a few of the most readily available facts that complicate the Obama-as-Bush theory of press relations, but there is a subtler and more important point to be made. Bush's press strategy didn't exist in isolation, or even just as part of the White House's broader communications strategy. It was one plank in a much more ambitious and wide-ranging agenda to expand executive power and to make the government's operations more inscrutable. That agenda, as the Columbia Journalism Review recently documented, was forwarded by pervasive classification and a restrictive view of the Freedom of Information Act, one of the key tools for reporters and the public to obtain information from the government.

But the Bush administration's larger goal was clear: to limit the ability of outsiders to scrutinize the workings of the administration. The goal went far beyond restricting information about internal personnel squabbles, or about who was up and who was down in the White House hierarchy (behind-the-scenes stories that are vastly less interesting to the public than to people in the media). It was about obscuring the actual workings of the government, from secret prisons to secret legal opinions, and promoting what media critic Jay Rosen has called "the opacity agenda."

After all, what was the purpose of transparency if empiricism was truly dead -- if, as one Bush aide legendarily put it, the "reality-based community" had it all wrong when it stubbornly clung to the belief that problem-solving required the "judicious study of discernible reality"? Many conservatives would no doubt argue that the administration's obscurantism was compelled by national security imperatives, but it began well before 9/11, and I suspect few of the former President's supporters would deny that secrecy was, as a simple matter of fact, a paramount concern in the Bush administration.

By contrast, the new president's first week involved moves that have been nothing if not highly public, and even during the campaign, the sketchy criticisms that the Obama team was withholding information had more to do with the strategic/process/behind-the-scenes stories that are beloved by the press. Anyone with time and access to either the internet or a local campaign office could learn about Obama's substantive positions in as much detail as any modern presidential candidate has provided.

Ultimately, the Bush team's press strategy was just one component of its more expansive agenda and an extension of the White House's overarching belief that it had no serious obligation to explain itself, to the press or the public at large. It is for that reason more than any that a comparison of the nascent Obama administration's press management with that of the Bush administration is bound to be myopic and ahistorical, let alone premature. Both Obama and Bush may be seriously leak-averse, but we have a long way to go before a credible argument can be made that equates their larger motives, or that comes anywhere close to substantiating the overheated claim that Obama is, as Ana Marie Cox put it, "perfecting the moves" of Bush.

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At this early stage of the Obama presidency, any attempt at exploring how the new White House will actually interact with the media is necessarily going to be vague and schematic. In all likelihood, they are themselves still working out the kinks in their media strategy and will continue to make significant adjustments in these opening months. But to do this sort of speculation justice, we have to place the Obama administration's relationship with the press in the broader context of its communications strategy and, crucially, its relationship with the public.

To date, the most important developments on this front have come in the form of two documents signed by Obama on his first full day in office -- the first, an executive order requiring the President to consult with the Attorney General and White House Counsel before asserting executive privilege; and the second, a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act that more clearly favors disclosure of executive branch materials. On-the-ground implementation in such matters is always key, but the stated rationale for these moves was to increase the flow of information leaving the government and making its way into the hands of the public.

Beyond that, the Obama team is likely to continue using some of the methods honed during the campaign and the transition to "bypass the filter" of the media. Over a half-million people watched the President's first weekly address on his YouTube channel, and the White House has promised greater access to information on its website, including the use of streaming video to make some meetings available to the public. Critically, though, when Obama works around traditional press outlets, he tends to use platforms that are both widely accessible and ideologically neutral -- an approach that contrasts starkly with that of the Bush administration, which tended to avoid the establishment media and make itself more available to friendly, conservative media outlets.

Still, although the White House's new website is certainly an upgrade from its predecessor, the upgrade in governmental transparency is so far rather limited. The Obama administration will post executive orders, presidential memoranda and pending legislation, but public executive orders and pending legislation have long been accessible on the internet, if not available quickly or directly through the White House's website. The Obama administration also plans to post non-emergency legislation for five days for public comment before the President signs it, but, as Obama aides have conceded, the White House is not likely to be swayed by the comments of internet users, who aren't necessarily representative of the nation at large. As for other initiatives that could recall the social networking features and tight connection between Obama and his supporters that marked the campaign, White House aides have already been dampening expectations, citing legal and logistical hurdles that constrain the government. (These may somehow explain why the White House blog is, for now, little more than a series of press releases.)

It should be clear, then, that none of the Obama administration's opening moves will obviate the role of a vigorous press. In fact, while the Obama administration's orientation to the media may require some adjustments, opportunities abound for enterprising journalists. FOIA requests will no doubt skyrocket. And if pending nonemergency legislation is to be available for at least five days, that is a guaranteed timeframe during which reporters can further analyze a proposed law before it's signed. Indeed, this function of the press -- its ability to synthesize and contextualize information -- will be more important than ever, and the ability to do it well is what will separate the best media outlets from the mediocre in an environment where the public is inundated with raw news and opinion.

This is also the potential silver lining for the press when the Obama administration bypasses them in favor of direct connections to the public. If the President can successfully expand the sphere of direct interactions between the White House and the American people, that frees up more time and space for analysis, context and fact-checking, today's truly scarce news commodities. It also increases the importance of watchdogs who can monitor the integrity of those interactions.

More than anything, though, the Obama administration may simply accelerate changes that the media landscape has been undertaking for years but that have been slower to affect the political media. Information and opinion abounds, but news consumers need people to make sense of it. With an administration that has promised unprecedented openness and has already made strides in that direction, it remains to be seen whether the elite media will fully seize the opportunity, or whether their own sense of self-importance will get in the way.