Politico writers Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen are on to something with their feature published today about President Obama’s mastery of the mainstream media. Their conclusion that the president and his staff have broken new ground in manipulating journalists and shaping favorable coverage of the administration is so obvious that it is almost inarguable. As I have argued several times over the past four years, no president since John F. Kennedy has enjoyed the sort of advantage or lack of serious scrutiny that the president has received. Vandehei and Allen are right when they point out that the calculated leaks and softball interviews combined with a command of social media and other methods that limit press access have combined to build the Obama juggernaut that won him re-election as well as give him an edge in any battle with Congress.
Yet Vandehei and Allen’s insistence that this has nothing to do with the conservative belief that “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated” ignores some of the same facts that they amass in discussing the way the president has played the “puppet master” with the media. No matter how smart the strategies employed by the White House, the president’s ability to skate through four years without getting seriously challenged by the mainstream media would not have been possible if most of those being played were not willing accomplices. Due credit must be given to the administration’s ability to take advantage of technology as well as their brilliant if unscrupulous game playing with journalists. But without the liberal bias of most of the mainstream outlets that let the president play them like a piano, he would come across as a bully and a demagogue rather than the reasonable nice guy seen in those “60 Minutes” interviews he loves to give.
Any analysis of the president’s media advantage must start with the understanding that his historical status as the first African-American president has given him far more leeway than any of his recent predecessors when it comes to scrutiny from the mainstream press. The broadcast networks as well as the liberal-leaning cable channels have treated Obama and his family as being above criticism. This has created a Camelot effect unseen in Washington since the days when the press was ignoring JFK’s personal immorality while turning his family into national icons.
The White House has ruthlessly exploited that willingness to portray the president in the sort of stained-glass light usually reserved for statesman of the past. But, as Politico rightly points out, they have doubled down on it by limiting access to the working press — even those from generally friendly liberal outlets — and going directly to the public via social media and White House-created content. That has been combined with cleverly staged leaks to journalists who then dutifully do the administration’s dirty work for it on a host of issues. All this allows the president to pose as the voice of reason on domestic issues and to generally avoid any pointed scrutiny on foreign affairs even when — as in the Benghazi fiasco — the duty of the press to focus on his lack of answers would seem obvious.
Politico is right that among those most frustrated by this are members of the White House press corps who may be liberals but are still eager to do their jobs. However, the only reason this has worked so well is the willingness of the editors and publishers who employ those frustrated reporters to roll over and play dead for the president. The unavoidable fact that Vandehei and Allen do their best to ignore is that the hamstringing of the working press’s ability to hold the president accountable dovetails nicely with the editorial stands of the vast majority of those outlets. That limits the time and space they are willing to give their staffers who might wish to push harder on an administration that is so careful about limiting access.
Just as important to the success of the White House’s puppetry is the eagerness of much of the liberal press to play ball with the president when given the opportunity to do so. As Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” admitted, the reason why Obama loves to go on the CBS show is that he knows he won’t be “made to look stupid” or be subjected to the same “gotcha” kind of questions for which that television institution was so well known in the decades when it established its long since undeserved reputation as the gold standard of broadcast journalism. Though few other liberal hacks have been as honest about their bias as Kroft, the same rule applies to virtually every outlet that has been granted the same kind of access such as the recent Obama puff piece published in The New Republic.
It barely needs to be said that had the George W. Bush administration tried the same tactics as Obama has employed, it wouldn’t have worked a fraction as well. That is not just because Bush was not as comfortable in playing the role of inaccessible puppeteer as his successor. His administration, like everyone that preceded it, had its own strategies for coping with the press and did its best to outwit those tasked with holding it accountable that were not always unsuccessful. The Obama administration didn’t invent leaks even if it has perfected them into something approaching an art form.
But the difference is that the White House press corps as well as their editors and publishers were never prepared to lie down for Bush in the way they have done with Obama. The Bush team could never look for the sort of softball interviews that Obama’s staffers know to rely upon. They also knew that any tactical victories it might achieve in getting their message across would be countered and often wiped out by the liberal institutional bias of the networks and newspapers that Obama never has to worry about. No matter how much the Bush White House would have leaked to the New York Times, there is no way that would have generated the kind of fawning coverage the Grey Lady has given Obama.
That’s why the lessons of Obama’s press strategies are of only limited utility to Republicans. They can learn from the methods he uses to go directly to the public without the filter of the media. His command of social media and smart use of content created by the White House should be emulated by every politician who wants to win. But no conservative will ever be able to manipulate the media the way Obama does because of the simple fact that the liberal press will not allow it as they do with Obama. This doesn’t mean Republicans are doomed to perpetual defeat, but it does remind them that they have a steeper hill to climb than their Democratic counterparts. As much as the GOP has to get into the 21st century when it comes to technology, the liberal press will never give them the free passes it hands out to the Obama White House every day of the week.