Friday, December 13, 2013
BOB GARFIELD: On Thursday, the New York Times printed a withering op-ed by Associated Press photo director Santiago Lyon, headlined, Obama’s Orwellian Image Control. The piece slammed the so-called “transparency president” for routinely excluding photographers from White House meetings and events and propagandizing, through the release of idealized official images.
Lyon isn’t the first critic of the White House’s obsessive media management. It’s been a recurring theme since Obama’s first day in office, when press photographers were forbidden to capture images of the President at work. As I discovered during a White House visit last spring, technology has allowed this President to achieve George W. Bush’s fondest dream of bypassing the media filter.
BOB GARFIELD: Marine One circles in the winter rain and alights on the White House South Lawn, returning from a staged event at a Virginia Shipyard to gin up support for the administration’s revenue proposals. President Obama decopters and strides purposefully across the soggy grass toward the Oval Office. Witnessing this extremely high-level walking are some 50 observers huddled under umbrellas and making small talk. Cameras click and whirr in perfunctory unison. The return leg from Newport News to Washington “No News” has been duly recorded. Ladies and gentlemen, your White House Press Corps in action.
[HOUSE OF CARDS CLIP]:
KATE MARA AS ZOE BARNES: The White House is where news goes to die. Everything is canned, these perfectly prepared statements.
SEBASTIAN ARCELUS AS LUCAS GOODWIN: It’s a prestigious job, Zoe.
ZOE BARNES: It used to be, when I was in ninth grade. Now it’s a graveyard. The only halfway interesting thing they do is serve a big dinner party once a year, where they pat themselves on the back and rub shoulders with movie stars. Who needs that?
BOB GARFIELD: That's a particularly resonant bit of dialogue from the Netflix series, House of Cards, an inside-the-Beltway melodrama in which the conflict tends to be a bit more compelling than the real-life version. On TV, there's lots of skullduggery and drinking and illicit sex. And in the White House briefing room, it’s mainly talking points.
PRESS SEC. JAY CARNEY: In anticipation of the meeting Friday, the President did invite the four leaders…
[SOUND UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: In the past week, the Press Corps’ very relevance has been questioned, in Slate and also in Politico, which called Obama “a puppet master.” Guess who are the puppets? That’s what I asked CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett, although I chose the slightly less pejorative term, “stenographer.”
MAJOR GARRETT: The President has a message. He’s the leader of the free world, and his message deserves to be communicated. That is a prerogative of the presidency. Conveying that accurately is not stenography. And I don’t consider that beneath me.
BOB GARFIELD: The nagging question this week though was what has displaced him? Once upon a time, these ink-stained barracudas, whether sardined into their cramped West Wing annex or on the road with the President, represented the only way to officially reach the electorate. Those dynamics every now and then did result in some drama, such as the 1974 confrontation between CBS’ Dan Rather and President Richard Nixon.
RICHARD NIXON: Are you running for something?
DAN RATHER: No sir, Mr. President. Are you?
BOB GARFIELD: Tens of millions of people tuned in to what were then all three networks gasped at Rather’s impertinence, but today's reporters and photographers have been marginalized by a gazillion other channels, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, the White House’s ongoing blog. the “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit and on TV not much evening news but plenty of Live at Five, David Letterman and The View. The White House is now itself a kind of media house. Ann Compton of ABC News:
ANN COMPTON: They become publishers, they become journalists, they become their own advertising agency.
BOB GARFIELD: Never mind one-on-ones with the President, says Compton, who’s covering her seventh presidential administration, most of the time reporters can’t even get access enough to shout out questions at a “grip and grin” session.
ANN COMPTON: We don't cover Oval Office photo ops, we don't cover many of the meetings he has when he meets with people on immigration or gun violence or the fiscal cliff, the meetings with Congress. It's been six months since I've even been in the Oval Office on my turn to be the pool member in there. To shut the media out to the extent this administration has, I think, is a disgrace.
BOB GARFIELD: And when administration officials do make themselves available, the information is almost always on background, which means nobody's name gets attached to the subsequent story and no official is held accountable.
For Fox News Correspondent Ed Henry, the final straw came with an event entirely closed to the press.
Okay, it wasn’t a summit or a bill signing. Okay, it was a golf game between Obama and Tiger Woods. Nonetheless, in his capacity as president of the White House Correspondents Association, Henry excoriated the administration for “Operation Zero Dark 18 Holes,” a complaint that White House Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest shrugged off.
JOSHUA EARNEST: Sometimes the President’s commitment to engaging with the American public means that there are some members of the White House Press Corps who get a little frustrated that they’re, that they’re not getting as many interviews as they would like. But, but at the end of the day, the President’s responsibility is not to the members of the White House Press Corps, it’s actually to the American public. That’s not the only way that we can fulfill our responsibilities. In order to fulfill his responsibility, to communicate his priorities, the President needs to avail himself of all the opportunities to do that. And that’s something that we’ve done with a lot of success here.
BOB GARFIELD: For instance, News Anchor Day. While the captive Washington Press Corps cooled its heels approximately 20 feet away recently, the President sat down with anchors from eight local stations from around the country, among them Kevin Ogle of KFOR, Oklahoma City, who didn’t necessarily go for the jugular.
KEVIN OGLE: You know, here I am, some local yokel from Oklahoma City [LAUGHS] getting to go up and interview the President, and we had limited time, and so, there’s not a lot of opportunity to ask follow-up questions, you know, or to take him to task on things.
BOB GARFIELD: In other words, no Nixon versus Rather moments?
KEVIN OGLE: [LAUGHS] No, it wasn’t like that at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Instead, Ogle passed along viewer questions, including one from basketball star Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
KEVIN OGLE: This one comes from KD. Putting your loyalty to the Bulls aside –
[PRESIDENT OBAMA LAUGHS]
- what are your thoughts on Oklahoma City’s Thunder basketball team? You know who KD is?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I do.
I’ve had a chance to play with him. He’s a, he’s a great guy. You know, his, his - his mother and his grandmother still live in this area, and -
BOB GARFIELD: In contrast, Susan Peters of KAKE, KAKE Wichita, was fairly aggressive in questioning Obama’s plan to cut tax exemptions for Kansas’s big corporate aircraft industry. That’s right after she handed the President a scrapbook she made of his mom’s Kansas heritage. I wondered if she thought she and her local colleagues had been fully respected.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you get the sense that they looked at you, all eight of you, like eight Ron Burgundys?
SUSAN PETERS: [LAUGHS] I don’t know if they looked at us like Ron Burgundys but I do think they – the administration thinks they can get their message out better through local anchors than through the White House Press Corps. I do definitely think that.
BOB GARFIELD: But she jumped at the opportunity anyway. Who wouldn’t?
SUSAN PETERS: To be honest with you, it was thrilling. It was thrilling being in the White House interviewing the President of the United States. But the national media, they not only know the questions to ask but they have the perspective behind the questions that local reporters and local anchors can’t have. I would say you go, White House Press Corps. You are crucial to us. And any attempt to diminish their role, I feel, is completely wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: Before I left the briefing room one day this week, I ran into E.J. Dionne, inveterate political analyst for the Washington Post, PBS and NPR. I asked him if this administration has perfected the end around.
E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think all presidents try to get around the Press Corps and now there are more opportunities to do it. But there is still a very large share of the population that’s going to get its news mediated. No matter how much we talk about the irrelevance of traditional journalism, it’s still a big enough audience that they have to worry about it.
E.J. DIONNE: Yep, are we ready?
BOB GARFIELD: And with that, Dionne went into a briefing about the sequestration showdown for a handful of the Press Corps - on background, of course. So no, the lights in the White House briefing room won’t be switched off anytime soon. The place still plays an important role.
SEC. OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: We think it’s as many as 40,000 people will lose jobs.
BOB GARFIELD: But to understand how things have changed, one merely needs to look up at the podium. As Jay Carney reads scripted answers to a reporter’s question, just behind him, next to the iconic White House Seal, hangs a giant flat screen TV, scrolling all the up-to-the-minute headlines. The source? The White House blog.