02/19/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Obama White House Tries Bypassing Messengers To Control The Message

The White House press corps voiced "extreme frustration" with the Obama White House this past weekend after being kept away from a golf outing with Tiger Woods.

Fox News' Ed Henry, who serves as president of the White House Correspondents Association, told The Huffington Post on Monday night that the golf game "is symbolic of a broader fight" and brought attention to long-running concerns that reporters, at times, aren't even getting a minimal level of access when traveling with the president.

Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen delved into some of these other issues Monday night with a piece describing Obama as a "puppet master," who has worked at "limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House."

[T]he mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it's an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.

The results are transformational. 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, and one that the Obama White House -- fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press -- has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry told Politico that "the balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press" and that the Obama White House "gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing."

While the Obama White House is employing new means of getting their message around the messengers -- especially in creating and disseminating their own news products and through use of social media -- the idea of trying to control information and circumvent reporters shouldn't comes as a surprise given they way the president governed during his first term, campaigned in 2008, or how his predecessors handled the press.

In 2010, another Politico duo, Josh Gerstein and Patrick Gavin wrote how reporters were down on the president, given his administration's dealings with reporters.

Obama and the media actually have a surprisingly hostile relationship -- as contentious on a day-to-day basis as any between press and president in the past decade, reporters who cover the White House say.

Reporters say the White House is thin-skinned, controlling, eager to go over their heads and stingy with even basic information. All White Houses try to control the message. But this White House has pledged to be more open than its predecessors, and reporters feel it doesn't live up to that pledge in several key areas:

But tension between reporters covering Obama and his handlers, along with questions about upholding a higher level of transparency, started before taking office, as Gabriel Sherman wrote for The New Republic in Aug. 2008.

...Reporters are grumbling more and more that the campaign is acting like the Prom Queen. They gripe that it is 'arrogant' and 'control[ling],' and the campaign's own belief that Obama is poised to make history isn't endearing, either. The press certainly helped Obama get so far so fast; the question is, how far can he get if his campaign alienates them?"


But, as Obama ascended from underdog to front-runner to presumptive nominee, the flame seems to have dwindled. Reporters who cover Obama these days grouse that Obama's flacks shroud the campaign in secrecy and provide little to no access. 'They're more disciplined than the Bush people,' a reporter on the Obama trail gripes. "There was this idea of being transparent, but they're not. They're total tightwads with information.'"

More disciplined than the Bush people? They were quite disciplined, too, as New Yorker's Ken Auletta wrote in his 2004 piece, "Fortress Bush: How the White House keeps the press under control."

What seems new with the Bush White House is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders--pleaders for more access and better headlines--as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that's not nearly as powerful as it once was.


Disciplined -- the White House is almost like a private corporation -- and relatively silent, too. 'The vast majority of people in this building -- the press doesn't believe this -- don't want to talk to the press,' Dan Bartlett told me. 'They want to do their job.'"

The Clinton White House, too, tried to beat the press, as Howard Kurtz wrote in his 1998 book, "Spin Cycle."

"To be sure, Clinton's performance helped create a sense that the country was doing just fine on his watch. But it was a carefully honed media strategy - alternately seducing, misleading, and sometimes intimidating the press -- that maintained this aura of success. No day went by without the president and his coterie laboring mightily to generate favorable headlines and deflect damaging ones, to project their preferred image on the vast screen of the media establishment."

Some things apparently don't change, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office or makes promises about greater transparency.

During Tuesday's press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that he's "sympathetic" to their desire for more access, having covered the Clinton and Bush White Houses for Time magazine. But the recent grumbling, he suggested, is nothing new.

"I doubt there has ever been a White House press corps that has been wholly satisfied with the level of access that they've been afforded," Carney said.