WASHINGTON -- There was much hand-wringing last week over Politico's "puppet master" piece claiming that President Obama runs circles around reporters because the White House has mastered the art of using modern media to circumvent the press.
Politico's piece raised the specter of government-run media, or at least made it sound like the Obama White House has created the beginnings of a state-run press.
"With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development," Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei write.
But all the focus on Obama's machinations overlooks two points. First, many presidents have tried to go around the White House press corps, from FDR's fireside chats to Richard Nixon's creation of the White House Office of Media Affairs, which increased focus on regional press. And second, the press corps does not need an invitation, or even access, to cover the president with the kind of bracing toughness that is called for.
In fact, it makes sense for the White House to try to go around the press corps. And the press will be more relevant to the extent it is substantively adversarial toward the executive branch (and of course to the other branches). Some observers believe an excessively deferential media is the real story, not Obama's supposed manipulation skills.
"The fact is this White House pays no price for their manipulation of the media, because the media allow it," Ed Gillespie, one of the GOP's most experienced operatives, said in a terse email response when asked about the subject.
Politico noted the rise of "extensive government creation of content (photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides), which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media," which often includes "footage unavailable to the press."
Time photographer Brooks Kraft was quoted as saying: "The White House has built its own content distribution network."
The Daily Caller said that "having a system where the government controls the delivery of information about itself isn't much better than having a state-controlled media."
Roll Call's David Drucker joked about the White House hiring its own reporters.
How long until White House TV hires its own reporters to attend the daily briefing and press conferences?
" David M. Drucker (@DavidMDrucker) February 19, 2013
There are reasons to be concerned about this trend of government-created content, to be sure. And Obama's practice of avoiding interviews with the reporters who cover him regularly was "some of the toughest criticism that was made in this piece," said Jim Manley, a former adviser and communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"They're very, very good about managing the press like that," Manley said. "These guys have made a decision that The New York Times be damned, they're going on The View."
Circumventing the press, however, is a bipartisan pursuit. When former Obama campaign national spokesman Ben LaBolt defended the White House media operation, a top Republican operator agreed with him.
â�� Ben LaBolt (@BenLaBolt) February 19, 2013
The White House has found more ways to engage Americans in the conversation directly, so should the media
â�� Ben LaBolt (@BenLaBolt) February 19, 2013
Brad Dayspring, the communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said LaBolt was right.
â�� Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) February 19, 2013
I talked to both Dayspring and LaBolt (the latter by email) about their exchange. Dayspring said the point of his comment "wasn't to high five the White House for shutting out the media."
"The point is that for good or for bad what they're doing is adapting to the modern world and that isn't going to change from this point forward," Dayspring said.
It is, in fact, hard to imagine any White House, Republican or Democrat, not playing in the modern-age media game.
"If I was at the White House today I would sure be doing it," said Ari Fleischer, who was Bush's White House press secretary from 2001 to 2003.
And Obama is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new media environment, given his global force of personality and enormous cultural power. He is a celebrity politician the likes of which has not been seen before in an age where image rules supreme.
"Government-run media" usually exists in countries where speech and press freedoms are restricted. The term describes a government monopoly on the news. And this is why it is concerning when the White House shuts out news photographers from many events and instead releases behind-the-scenes shots taken by White House photographer Pete Souza (who was also President Ronald Reagan's White House image-maker during his second term), which are -- despite their aesthetic appeal and historic value -- nonetheless propaganda pieces.
There is, however, a route to monopoly other than suppression: lack of competition. If the press isn't tough enough on the White House, maybe consumers don't need to check them out. In that sense, going easy on the president would, or should, cause the media's market share to go down, because their content would be redundant. And to the extent that the press challenges the White House, they would be offering something different, something distinct, which would presumably drive up demand for their product.
Many conservatives think this is the problem. They believe the the press goes easy on the president, and that is the reason why Obama gets credit for being a media maestro.
The Daily Caller and Hot Air both called the press the "lap dog media."
Rush Limbaugh was apoplectic, joking that Politico's Allen and Vandehei might be "mentally ill."
"You don't need to be manipulated. You agree with Obama! You don't need to be manipulated. This is what's funny about this. These guys are acting like they're just innocent dupes," Limbaugh said.
Hyperbole aside, the push back from the right raises a good question: has there been a media uproar during Obama's presidency anywhere close to the feeding frenzies that took place around the firing of seven U.S. Attorneys by Bush, the Valerie Plame scandal and the ensuing Scooter Libby trial? Something like the Fast and Furious gun tracking operation is a good example of a program that, if it had happened under Bush, would almost surely have received far more robust coverage than it did. The Solyndra boondoggle is another one.
Fast and Furious was an ATF operation that began in 2009, where the government allowed 2,000 of its own firearms (including AK-47's and sniper rifles) to be purchased by gun runners so they could try to track them. Many of the guns ended up with the Mexican drug cartels, and in December 2010, a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in a shootout along the Mexican border with individuals using guns that were part of the ATF operation. Less than half of the guns have since been recovered. The fallout from the scandal resulted in the resignation of several high-ranking officials and Congress holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Holder was cleared by an Inspector General probe of having direct knowledge of Fast and Furious, but the report was also critical of the Justice Department's handling of the issue.
Solyndra was a case where the government in 2009 extended a $535 million loan with advantageous terms to a green energy company backed by a primary investor who was also a bundler for Obama's 2008 campaign, despite red flags about the company's financial footing. In 2011, the company shut its doors, declared bankruptcy, and let go around 1,100 employees.
In both cases, the elements were there for the entirety of the press to loudly demand answers, day after day, from the White House on what it knew and when, and what its involvement was, like it did with Bush many times. Instead, there were isolated reporters at big news organizations that pursued each story (such as CBS' Sheryl Atkinson on Fast and Furious, and ABC's Brian Ross on Solyndra), but the White House was never under siege on either issue.
Or take Obama's decision to give the green light to targeted killings of American citizens overseas, without due process. Despite The New York Times' dogged coverage of the issue, and increasing, if belated, pressure from a number of media outlets, Fleischer argued that the broader press corps has not shone a spotlight on the story in a sustained manner.
"If we were in what should be the third week of a feeding frenzy over drone attacks that kill Americans, the White House could care less about what was on whitehouse.gov. They would be dealing with the fire in front of them," Fleischer said. "There's no fire to deal with. This press corps keeps letting go."
Bush did receive a lot of deferential coverage after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003. But that did not last for long. It's hard to argue that the press, writ large, has been as adversarial toward Obama in a way that they were toward Bush for most of his presidency.
The media atmosphere in the days of Clinton and Bush was far more contentious -- in part for the logical reason that Clinton was impeached and Bush started a war on what turned out to be false pretenses.
Until recently, despite much-discussed flaps over Solyndra and Fast and Furious, that same sense of dug-in press antogonism to the president has not existed outside of the realm of Fox News. That could change given the growing controversy and press curiosity about drones. But conservatives, not without justification, wonder why there hasn't been more digging on that and other issues until now.
Even in current debates like the sequester, there doesn't seem to be much interest in calling out the president for false statements like the ones he made Thursday on Al Sharpton's radio show, saying that the GOP insists on "never raising taxes" on the wealthy (it agreed to do so in January), and that Republicans are opposed to closing tax loopholes (they favor closing them as part of a comprehensive reform of the tax code).
There is one structural reason why stories slip from view more quickly than they did during the Bush presidency. The Obama presidency has coincided with the rise of Twitter and, by many accounts, the further deterioration of the attention span. And Twitter is a force which has taken a media space that had already fractured into millions of pieces and thrown it into overdrive, like a particle accelerator slamming millions of particles into one another day after day.
When I interviewed former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer in 2009 about the mainstream media's loss of power -- before Twitter was even a major factor -- the daily news cycle had already atomized into several mini-cycles a day.
"There are so many outlets and so many places that are driving the news that, in the end, nothing gets driven," Gibbs said at the time.
Twitter has, in some ways, exacerbated this problem. It's harder for any drum beat to pick up steam because a few big drum sticks have been cut into pieces and handed around to everyone with a few thousand followers. But Twitter does make it easier to track what the media consensus is. Which brings us back to the subject of media frenzies, and the relative, notable lack of them during the Obama presidency.
The question of media bias is often debated, but there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it exists, from political donation trends among journalists, to studies showing that Obama benefited from favorable coverage in 2008 and 2012, to comments by journalists like CNN's Jake Tapper, who said last year that the media "helped tip the scales" for Obama in 2008.
But beyond allegations of bias, the president's cultural supremacy gives the White House some leverage over reporters as well, and the Obama White House uses it aggressively and mercilessly.
Regardless, Fleischer and Dayspring both said they believe that conservatives gain nothing by complaining.
"Those of us on the right need to stop whining about how President Obama and his team are doing this or doing that. Watch them, learn, adapt, modernize. Keep up with it," Dayspring said. "So much of political communication is stuck in the late '90s. It's time to join the 21st century."
There is one Republican who seems to have figured this out. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), with a clever and self-deprecating response to his swig of water during his live TV response to Obama's State of the Union address, took a moment that would have paralyzed Mitt Romney and turned it into an asset.
It's a start.