Beltway Media Must Quit Whining

There’s a big brouhaha going on in DC, and it’s not about the upcoming “sequester” (automatic budget cuts), immigration reform or gun control.

No, it’s about the very limited, controlled access the White House gives certain representatives of the mainstream media to whom this is a bigger issue than North Korea’s nuclear testing or climate change.

The controversy was triggered by a sensational piece in that most inside-the-Beltway media outlet, Politico. Entitled “Obama, the Puppet Master” and written by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, the piece said:

President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House….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).

…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.

At first blush, there’s reason for concern here. But it’s not the whole story:

Obama gives frequent interviews (an astonishing 674 in his first term, compared with 217 for President George W. Bush),…but they are often with network anchors or local TV stations, and rarely with the reporters who cover the White House day to day….

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.

Ah, so the president does give interviews—lots of them, in fact—but not to newspapers or the White House press corps. So, he’ll do interviews with NBC’s Brian Williams but not Chuck Todd? Is that the beef?

Jim VandeHel, left, and Mike Allen (right) talk about their story "Obama, the Puppet Master" on Politico.

Jim VandeHel (left) and Mike Allen (right) talk about their story “Obama, the Puppet Master” on Politico.

Conservatives are delighted—they call it payback for the fawning coverage they say the president gets from the media. (Actually, the coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign was on balance slightly more negative for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney than it was for the president, according to the Pew Research Center.)

Part of this is about the Beltway media’s obsession with access, the fool’s gold of journalism. Many Washington journalists will do almost anything to “get” that key interview with the president or another luminary—which often has little value. And the price can be very high, as when The New York Times, The Washington Post and others failed to carefully examine the Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq in 2003. Once lost, credibility is tough to regain.

But this is more about the media pecking order than anything else. Newspapers’ power and influence have declined rapidly with the rise of cable TV, the Internet and social media. Consumers now can choose among a much wider range of news sources, and where voters go, politicians will follow.

As Allen and VandeHei wrote:

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.

The big newspapers and the White House press corps are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. They should quit whining and deal with it.


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