Manipulating the media
by Posted Wed, Dec 2 2009
Little attention has been paid to it, but President Barack Obama has been bringing manipulation and control of the news business to new heights. The culture and technology of such manipulation has been developing for years. The combination of both has created a science of control that goes hand in hand with the gathering in of other power by the Office of the President.
On a Sunday morning in September, the embattled president was seen on five different television shows, making the same points on each about his health care program. He had given interviewers from the three major broadcasting networks and two of the three 24-hour cable channels each 15 minutes the previous Friday. It was characterized in news reports as a “marathon,” implying an act of heroic strength. It could have as easily been tagged a propagandistic blowout.
That it was an exercise in controlling information coming from the White House generally went unnoticed. The interviewers could argue they had the opportunity to press the president on contentious points as George Stephanopoulos of ABC did on the question of whether the bill contained implicit tax increases when the president said in a recent speech that it would have none. The journalist pressed. Obama was unyielding.
In recent years, the beginning of a prime time news conference has been video of the president walking down a corridor into the East Room of the White House and taking up his position behind the lectern in the doorway so that the majesty of his home and office is imprinted on the tens of millions of viewers. His approach is more that of a reigning monarch than of a democratically elected leader of one of the world’s oldest democracies.
After an opening statement intended more for the television audience than the reporters gathered on gilded chairs in front of him, he called on questioners from a prepared list of those he was going to recognize. There was little, if any, opportunity for an unanticipated reporter to ask a question that might surprise the president.
There was a time when a presidential news conference was a forum for keeping the entire federal government honest. A reporter doing a story on, say, the failure of the National Park service to prevent unauthorized grazing by privately owned livestock herds might run into trouble getting information from the Interior Department bureaucracy. “OK,” the reporter could say, “I will ask the president of the United States,” and at the next news conference the question could be asked. Often the question would be answered right away.
That was when presidents held weekly news conferences open to all Washington reporters. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy stuck to that routine. Lyndon B. Johnson modified it, and Richard M. Nixon abandoned the regularly scheduled news conferences altogether by holding them infrequently in the East Room.
Ronald Reagan added the walk down the hallway. President Obama’s contribution has been the prepared list of reporters to be called upon. The Washington reporters I have talked to see nothing wrong with that practice. They say the reporters are not notified they are being called upon and that the White House has no way of knowing what question will be asked.
The point of all this is that the president of the United States and the White House bureaucracy are much more clever than the Washington press corps. With each succeeding president, the control grows tighter.
The news business is concerned these days, and rightly so, with its own survival in a time of revolutionary technological and economic change. It should also be concerned with change that those who control information are foisting on it.
The best reporters are still doing a good job of investigatory work. That speaks well for the news business after a period just a few years ago when it was taking erroneous information from Bush Administration officials and, without verifying, using it as true.
But if the best investigators are still doing well, those attending run-of-the-mill news events are undergoing control.
A popular new and historic president can make a lot of changes during his “honeymoon” period. The news business should not allow the president to usurp its capabilities. If the president can do it in a democracy such as the United States, his counterparts can do it anywhere.
This is a matter that involves not only the American news business and its consumers. It is also a matter of concern in the news business throughout the world.
The news business in the United States is as free as it ever was, but it is nonetheless controllable.