WASHINGTON -- The president jets off to play golf for the weekend at a private resort, leaving the traveling press outside the gates, at a hotel 25 minutes away -- and suddenly there's a full-blown First Amendment crisis.
President Obama's lost weekend with Tiger Woods has become the latest iteration of a pervasive media meme: that Obama is "aloof" and that his White House is the most manipulative, secretive and press-averse in modern times.
Obama isn't aloof. He talks plenty, just not very often to what used to be called "the national press corps." My advice to colleagues, for what it's worth: stop whining and start (or keep) digging.
The question isn't whether Team Obama tries to block, bully and circumvent White House reporters. Of course it does. Obama's high command elbows aside the enfeebled and often cash-strapped traditional media when it can to speak directly to Americans, and it performs this work-around with skill, discipline and cutting-edge social-media savvy.
This is not news. And it is not new, and it is not illegal.
Nor is the question whether the White House officials, in homage to the First Amendment, should be open and candid in the name of liberty and official probity. Of course they should. And the tooth fairy should really exist and every high school history teacher should get his own Jennifer Lawrence.
White House officials are right to be contemptuous of much of the commentariat. Too often, too many of us (including me) toss out cheap insights or lame one-liners without first doing the reporting to justify them. Nor is web traffic generated by listicles and cat videos what the Founders had in mind when they envisioned a free press as a guarantor of good government. And the White House is correct that it does put tons of useful information out there -- much of which is ignored or left unstudied by the national media.
White House officials can and do recite all of these things in defending themselves. But that only goes so far. The president should be called to account for limiting his exposure to unanticipated and uncomfortable questions. If nothing else, it's not sporting -- kind of like insisting on having a former college player on your pickup basketball team.
Forget the pundits, who are easy to dismiss. What about reporters asking serious, substantive questions about policy matters? It's hard to get the simplest answer from the lowest functionary, not to mention an illuminating answer -- on the record or off -- from a higher-up. The White House should (but never will) admit that, Murdoch and Tea Party bloggers aside, it has enjoyed some of the tamest presidential coverage since the early '60s.
Is there a direct, causal relationship between the White House's press strategy and the tenor of the press? If there is, that's our fault, not Obama's. We need to ask the questions over and over and complain loudly and publicly when specifics are not forthcoming; execute our own work-around strategies via Capitol Hill or K Street; file the FOIAs; read the court records; do our homework before mouthing off; look more closely at the most serious aspects of what the Administration is or is not up to.
In other words, make sure we are worthy of the access we are not getting. We weren't going to learn anything useful on the golf course anyway.
Follow Howard Fineman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/howardfineman