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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

POLITICO: Obama, the puppet master

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

* 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.

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.


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