Commentary Magazine


Topic: White House press corps

JFK and Obama: Press Access Lessons

On a day when the nation is awash with memories of John F. Kennedy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one comparison between JFK and Barack Obama is highly instructive: their attitudes toward the press and the control of information.

Few presidents have been as secretive as President Obama. As Chuck Todd rightly pointed out yesterday during the daily brief at the White House, this administration has not merely done its best to shut down the working press and silence dissent from within the ranks of the government with an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions over leaks. It has also created what amounts to nothing less than a state media as the White House has excluded journalists from some events and instead distributed its own official photos and stories via official websites (which unlike the ObamaCare site, don’t crash). Doing so enables the president to control the story in a way that few of his predecessors, even before the era of the mass media, could have dreamed of doing. By contrast, President Kennedy offered reporters and photographers an equally unprecedented amount of access.

The irony here is that by treating the press as his friends and allies rather than enemies, Kennedy was able to keep secrets about his health and his disgraceful personal conduct during his presidency since none of his journalistic cronies and enablers wished to undermine their friend in the Oval Office. He smartly used press conferences to reach the American people directly where he could show off his wit and command of the issues, but in doing so he knew the press he had seduced had his back.

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On a day when the nation is awash with memories of John F. Kennedy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one comparison between JFK and Barack Obama is highly instructive: their attitudes toward the press and the control of information.

Few presidents have been as secretive as President Obama. As Chuck Todd rightly pointed out yesterday during the daily brief at the White House, this administration has not merely done its best to shut down the working press and silence dissent from within the ranks of the government with an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions over leaks. It has also created what amounts to nothing less than a state media as the White House has excluded journalists from some events and instead distributed its own official photos and stories via official websites (which unlike the ObamaCare site, don’t crash). Doing so enables the president to control the story in a way that few of his predecessors, even before the era of the mass media, could have dreamed of doing. By contrast, President Kennedy offered reporters and photographers an equally unprecedented amount of access.

The irony here is that by treating the press as his friends and allies rather than enemies, Kennedy was able to keep secrets about his health and his disgraceful personal conduct during his presidency since none of his journalistic cronies and enablers wished to undermine their friend in the Oval Office. He smartly used press conferences to reach the American people directly where he could show off his wit and command of the issues, but in doing so he knew the press he had seduced had his back.

Though most of the White House press corps is as, if not more, eager to help Obama as their predecessors were to aid Kennedy, over the course of five years of stonewalling, deceptions, and end runs, he has managed to alienate even liberals who now are justified in complaining that the White House is little different from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime when it comes to control of information.

The moral of the story is not just that Obama seems a lot closer to Richard Nixon in his behavior than to that of his avowed hero Kennedy, though that is a fair conclusion. Rather, it is that what is most needed in a democracy is a vigorous and free press that is neither prevented from doing its job by a semi-official government media run publishing propaganda from the White House nor compromised by the hero worship and cronyism.

Looking back on the history of the Kennedy era, the press should never lose the sense of shame that it ought to feel about its cover ups of the truth about the president’s health and his dissolute and even reckless personal behavior (having mistresses is one thing, debauching interns and sleeping with the molls of gangsters under federal investigation is quite another). But neither should it allow itself to be intimidated by a White House press operation that appears to be the polar opposite of Kennedy’s clever decision to co-opt the press.

Is it too much to ask that journalists not go into the tank for politicians or to be allowed to do their job without being superseded by a state propaganda arm? No, it’s not. Instead, of obsessing about Kennedy’s death, our media would do better to learn the lessons of JFK and Obama’s abuse of press freedom.

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Tapper: Why is WH Ignoring the Economy?

ABC’s Jake Tapper has been trying his best to get the White House to comment on the issues the public cares about — namely, the economy — but it’s been an uphill battle so far. At the WH press briefing today, Tapper pressed Jay Carney on why Obama hasn’t mentioned yesterday’s troubling CBO report:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “The Congressional Budget Office report is a pretty dire warning about what this nation faces, yet I didn’t hear the president mention it yesterday, is there a reason why?”

White House Spokesman Jay Carney: “Well I think I put out a statement which is the White House’s view and the president’s view. The president talks every day that he’s out there, as he was yesterday, about what we need to do to help build our economy, help it to continue to grow, help it to continue to create jobs and yesterday, and the day before, he was focusing on the need to continue investments in education because he firmly believes that education is a matter of our economy, it’s an economic issue.”

Tapper: That’s not what the Congressional Budget Office was addressing, they were talking about … The president talked about education, he talked about Todd Akin, he talked about Michael Jordan, he talked about a lot of—

Carney dodged it, responding with a few boilerplate sentences on Obama’s “balanced approach” to the “fiscal challenges.” But it’s a question that should be put to the White House over and over again. Why won’t the Obama campaign talk about the economy? More importantly, why does the White House press corps — Tapper and some others excluded — allow Obama to get away with it?

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ABC’s Jake Tapper has been trying his best to get the White House to comment on the issues the public cares about — namely, the economy — but it’s been an uphill battle so far. At the WH press briefing today, Tapper pressed Jay Carney on why Obama hasn’t mentioned yesterday’s troubling CBO report:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “The Congressional Budget Office report is a pretty dire warning about what this nation faces, yet I didn’t hear the president mention it yesterday, is there a reason why?”

White House Spokesman Jay Carney: “Well I think I put out a statement which is the White House’s view and the president’s view. The president talks every day that he’s out there, as he was yesterday, about what we need to do to help build our economy, help it to continue to grow, help it to continue to create jobs and yesterday, and the day before, he was focusing on the need to continue investments in education because he firmly believes that education is a matter of our economy, it’s an economic issue.”

Tapper: That’s not what the Congressional Budget Office was addressing, they were talking about … The president talked about education, he talked about Todd Akin, he talked about Michael Jordan, he talked about a lot of—

Carney dodged it, responding with a few boilerplate sentences on Obama’s “balanced approach” to the “fiscal challenges.” But it’s a question that should be put to the White House over and over again. Why won’t the Obama campaign talk about the economy? More importantly, why does the White House press corps — Tapper and some others excluded — allow Obama to get away with it?

The advent of online media was supposed to increase competition and improve reporting. Instead, some reporters seem so hooked on getting their six or seven scoops a day from their campaign sources that they end up acting as stenographers for newsmakers instead of challenging them. Maybe it’s because journalists are time-crunched, or maybe it’s because they don’t want their access to dry up, or maybe it’s because economic stories don’t bring in the web hits. But the speed at which the media jumps from distraction to distraction is disappointing.

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President’s Press Abuse Could Backfire

The saying goes, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” For the Obama campaign and White House, that hand is the White House press corps. The president can give speeches until he’s blue in the face (which he often does, when he’s not at fundraisers, that is), but it’s the press–which is generally sympathetic to the president’s agenda–that report these talking points to the American people.

Today, National Review’s Jim Geraghty remarked in his essential Morning Jolt newsletter:

So if Obama tries to make the next two months about Seamus and tax returns and Bain layoffs killing steelworkers’ wives and so on . . . he’ll be advancing a bridge too far for his non-MSNBC media allies. What you or I might call the moderate-left MSM — CNN, the Washington Post editorial page, USA Today, The Economist, and most of the business and financial press — will have to acknowledge that one side is putting forth a serious solution, and the other side is trying to turn the presidential campaign into a reality-show food-fight.

Oh, and you figure snubbing the White House press corps to do sit-down interviews with Entertainment Tonight probably won’t help matters, either.

The White House press corps noticed the snub and aren’t too pleased with taking a backseat to news outlets that are devoted to breathlessly reporting on Jennifer Aniston’s engagement and Brad Pitt’s upcoming wedding.

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The saying goes, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” For the Obama campaign and White House, that hand is the White House press corps. The president can give speeches until he’s blue in the face (which he often does, when he’s not at fundraisers, that is), but it’s the press–which is generally sympathetic to the president’s agenda–that report these talking points to the American people.

Today, National Review’s Jim Geraghty remarked in his essential Morning Jolt newsletter:

So if Obama tries to make the next two months about Seamus and tax returns and Bain layoffs killing steelworkers’ wives and so on . . . he’ll be advancing a bridge too far for his non-MSNBC media allies. What you or I might call the moderate-left MSM — CNN, the Washington Post editorial page, USA Today, The Economist, and most of the business and financial press — will have to acknowledge that one side is putting forth a serious solution, and the other side is trying to turn the presidential campaign into a reality-show food-fight.

Oh, and you figure snubbing the White House press corps to do sit-down interviews with Entertainment Tonight probably won’t help matters, either.

The White House press corps noticed the snub and aren’t too pleased with taking a backseat to news outlets that are devoted to breathlessly reporting on Jennifer Aniston’s engagement and Brad Pitt’s upcoming wedding.

Today one of the most evenhanded and hard-hitting voices in the press corps, ABC’s Jake Tapper, wrote a blog post that took notice of the White House’s choice of press outlets:

President Obama hasn’t formally taken questions from the White House press corps in more than two months, while on the campaign trail in Iowa yesterday he made time for reporters from People Magazine and Entertainment Tonight.

His last news conference was at the G20 in June, when he answered six questions from three reporters on the European debt crisis, the conflict in Syria, and the notion of politics stopping at the water’s edge.

The White House press corps has not formally been given the opportunity to ask questions of the president on U.S. soil since his appearance in the Briefing Room on June 8 (when he said “the private sector is doing fine.“)

His last formal White House news conference was on March 6.

While the White House may be afraid to submit the president to questioning from the political press, it is still subjecting Press Secretary Jay Carney to an increasingly frustrated media. Today’s White House press briefing wasn’t pretty, and Tapper wasn’t alone in his harsh line of questions to Carney, who did nothing but deflect and distract from constant queries on the president’s refusal to rebuke his vice president’s incendiary remarks on the GOP’s plan to put the largely African-American audience “back in chains.” During the briefing Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry pointedly asked Carney, “Ryan has put his details out there. You’re hitting them. When does the president put his details out there? Before the election or after the election? … Giving an extra eight years to Medicare kicks it down eight more years. Everyone acknowledges you have to do more.” Carney’s response? “I think you, uh, need to focus more attention on the Ryan budget rules.”

Continued disrespect from the White House for the reporters that cover it are bound to affect the coverage it receives. While the media may be in the same ideological camp as the President and his administration, they have limits on their willingness to provide positive coverage of a White House that refuses to even play along and pretend to cooperate.

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