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How The Press Can Remain Relevant Under Obama

Tony Romm

Posted: Feb 24th 2009 12:27PM

Filed under: Politics, Advise & Dissent, American University, Featured Stories

Animated disagreement between coworkers is a venerable tradition often denied to Bright Hall's far-flung, break room-less staff. Advise & Dissent is an attempt to fix that. Click here for past debates, and click here to read Matt Negrin's first post on Obama's media management style.

In March 2003, then-President George W. Bush did the unthinkable: He snubbed Helen Thomas.

Indeed, contrary to established White House ritual, whereby Thomas concluded presidential press conferences with her signature "Thank you, Mr. President," Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer noted at this particular Spring presser that "Bush denied her that supporting role, ending the conference with his own sign off, 'Thank you for your questions,' and flushing a decades-old White House custom."

To a press corps that is as much a part of Washington culture as the presidents they cover, Bush's misstep was pure anathema; journalists could not conceive of a previous abomination of equal impudence.

Their manifest perplexity, however, was not a function of Bush's audacity; rather, it was a byproduct of their short collective memory. Before Bush brazenly brushed-off Thomas, Ronald Reagan renounced press conferences and jipped journalists of due access to the United States' intervention in Grenada. After the impeached Richard Nixon realized he could profit from perceivably facile foreign interviews, the lore of which now lives in Oscar infamy, Bill Clinton sat cozy with critical columnists on his airplanes.

Of course, these abuses of the "fourth estate" varied in effect, duration and warrant. But they nonetheless represented repeated attempts by presidents to manhandle press-government relations and control the scope and tone of national political reportage.

Is it any surprise, then, that the Obama administration has employed a similar strategy to cordon journalists in 2009? The new president's pre-determined question lists exhibit a striking resemblance to his immediate predecessor's surprise seating rearrangements or follow-up question bans, among other silencing tactics. Add to the brewing controversy Obama's over-reported tendency to ignore conservative-leaning reporters and outlets, and it is easy to understand why journalists at large are growing increasingly upset with the new administration.

That is, easy to see, but nonetheless unreasonable. The presidency and the press have always maintained a historically adversarial relationship, one that is contingent upon coexistence: the president depends on media to articulate policy, and reporters depend on presidents for information.That the two constantly struggle for control in that relationship is merely an inherent byproduct of political tradition and media evolution.

It is also why journalists should not expect anything more from the Obama administration. No matter how frequently he associates his presidency with a new "era of transparency," the executive branch's general need to rebuff external criticism and skepticism persists irrespective of which party or president controls the White House (and whatever rhetorical platitudes they offer voters on the path to get there). Openness is integral to democracy, -- and the journalists who claim to defend it -- to be sure. But an unfiltered relationship between the press and government is hardly as practical as some reporters would like to believe.

To stay relevant, journalists must adapt. From the news media's incremental lateralization -- the idea that news is now a many-to-many dialogue, not a one-to-many hierarchy -- has arisen the importance of truth gatekeeping, a task for which professional journalists have always been best suited. And in this occasionally cacophonous era of "social media" -- an area in which Obama's administration also possesses some advantages -- the value of news filters have increased exponentially.

As a result, Beltway journalists are still the most tactically and (surprisingly) financially equipped breed to build source networks, launch massive investigations and deliver enterprise reporting -- even if their poor short-term memories often cause them to forget this. Obama's hackneyed information strategy may complicate those tasks, make no mistake; but those "abuses" hardly constitute brash exceptions from an unfortunately historic -- yet democratically destructive -- political norm.

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