|President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the 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.
“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nowadays, he said, “The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”
McCurry and his colleagues in the Clinton White House were hardly above putting their boss in front of gentle questions: Clinton and Vice President Al Gore often preferred the safety of “Larry King Live” to the rhetorical combat of the briefing room. But Obama and his aides have raised it to an art form: The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on “The View”?
At the same time, this White House has greatly curtailed impromptu moments where reporters can ask tough questions after a staged event — or snap a picture of the president that was not shot by government-paid photographers.
The frustrated Obama press corps neared rebellion this past holiday weekend when reporters and photographers were not even allowed onto the Floridian National GolfClub, where Obama was golfing. That breached the tradition of the pool “holding” in the clubhouse and often covering — and even questioning — the president on the first and last holes.
Obama boasted Thursday during a Google+ Hangout from the White House: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” The people who cover him day to day see it very differently.
“The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace,” said ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton, who has covered every president back to Gerald R. Ford. “The president’s day-to-day policy development — on immigration, on guns — is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it. There are no readouts from big meetings he has with people from the outside, and many of them aren’t even on his schedule. This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.”
One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is 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. They often include footage unavailable to the press.
Brooks Kraft, a contributing photographer to Time, said White House officials “have a willing and able and hungry press that eats this stuff up, partly because the news organizations are cash-strapped.”
“White House handout photos used to be reserved for historically important events — 9/11, or deliberations about war,” Kraft said. “This White House regularly releases [day-in-the-life] images of the president … a nice picture of the president looking pensive … from events that could have been covered by the press pool. But I don’t blame the White House for doing it, because networks and newspapers use them. So the White House has built its own content distribution network.”
When Obama nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, she gave one interview — to White House TV, produced by Obama aides.
“There’s no question that technology has significantly altered the playing field of competitive journalism,” said Josh Earnest, principal deputy White House press secretary — and the voice of “West Wing Week,” produced by the administration.
“Our ongoing challenge is to engage media outlets with audiences large and small — occasionally harnessing technology to find new ways to do so.”
By no means does Obama escape tough scrutiny or altogether avoid improvisational moments. And by no means is Obama unique in wanting to control his public image and message — every president pushes this to the outer limits. His 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, was equally adept at substance-free encounters with reporters.
But something is different with this White House. Obama’s aides are better at using technology and exploiting the president’s “brand.” They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forums, not just for campaigns, but governing.
“They use every technique anyone has ever thought of, and some no one ever had,” New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker told us. “They can be very responsive and very helpful at pulling back the curtain at times while keeping you at bay at others. And they’re not at all shy about making clear when they don’t like your stories, which is quite often.”
Conservatives assume a cozy relationship between this White House and the reporters who cover it. Wrong. Many reporters find Obama himself strangely fearful of talking with them and often aloof and cocky when he does. They find his staff needlessly stingy with information and thin-skinned about any tough coverage. He gets more-favorable-than-not coverage because many staffers are fearful of talking to reporters, even anonymously, and some reporters inevitably worry access or the chance of a presidential interview will decrease if they get in the face of this White House.
Obama himself sees little upside to wide-ranging interviews with the beat reporters for the big newspapers — hence, the stiffing of even The New York Times since 2010. The president’s staff often finds Washington reporters whiny, needy and too enamored with trivial matters or their own self-importance.
So the White House has escalated the use of several media manipulation techniques:
*The super-safe, softball interview is an Obama specialty. The kid glove interview of Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Steve Kroft of CBS’s “60 Minutes” is simply the latest in a long line of these. Obama gives frequent interviews (an astonishing 674 in his first term, compared with 217 for President George W. Bush, according to statistics compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University), but they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day.
“This administration loves to boast about how transparent they are, but they’re transparent about things they want to be transparent about,” said Mark Knoller, the veteran CBS News reporter. “He gives interviews not for our benefit, but to achieve his objective.” Knoller last talked to Obama in 2010 — and that was when Knoller was in then-press secretary Robert Gibbs’s office, and the president walked in.
* There’s the classic weekend document dump to avoid negative coverage. By our count, the White House has done this nearly two dozen times, and almost always to minimize attention to embarrassing or messy facts. “What you guys call a document dump, we call transparency,” the White House’s Earnest shot back. If that’s the case, the White House was exceptionally transparent during the Solyndra controversy, releasing details three times on a Friday.
* There is the iron-fisted control of access to White House information and officials. Top officials recently discouraged Cabinet secretaries from talking about sequestration. And even top officials privately gripe about the muzzle put on them by the White House.
* They are also masters of scrutiny avoidance. The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years. These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.
Kumar, who works out of the White House press room and tallies every question a journalist asks the president, has found that in his first term Obama held brief press availabilities after photos ops or announcements one-third as often as George W. Bush did in his first term — 107 to Bush’s 355.
* While White House officials deny it is intentional, this administration —like its predecessors — does some good old-fashioned bullying of reporters: making clear there will be no interviews, or even questions at press conferences, if aides are displeased with their coverage.
Still, the most unique twist by this White House has been the government’s generating and distributing of content.
A number of these techniques were on vivid display two weekends ago, when the White House released a six-month-old photo of the president shooting skeet, buttressing his claim in a New Republic interview that he fires at clay pigeons “all the time” at Camp David.
Obama and his team, especially newly promoted senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, often bemoan the media’s endless chase of superficial and distracting storylines. So how did the president’s inner circle handle the silly dust-up about whether the president really did shoot skeet?
Pfeiffer and White House press secretary Jay Carney tweeted a link to the photo, with Pfeiffer writing that it was “[f]or all the skeeters” (doubters, or “skeet birthers”). Longtime adviser David Plouffe then taunted critics on Twitter: “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” Plouffe soon followed up with: “Day made. The skeet birthers are out in full force in response to POTUS pic. Makes for most excellent, delusional reading.”
The controversy started with an interview co-conducted by Chris Hughes, a former Obama supporter and now publisher of The New Republic. The government created the content (the photo), released it on its terms (Twitter) and then used Twitter again to stoke stories about conservatives who didn’t believe Obama ever shot a gun in the first place.
“The people you need to participate in the process are not always the people hitting ‘refresh’ on news websites,” said Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign’s traveling press secretary, who last week was appointed the State Department spokeswoman. “The goal is not to satisfy the requester, but doing what is necessary to get into people’s homes and communicate your agenda to the American people.”
Katie Glueck contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story neglected to credit Martha Joynt Kumar for statistics on presidential interviews.