November 3, 2008


The Coming Obama-Press War: It's inevitable (Jack Shafer, Nov. 3, 2008, Slate)

No matter how well he prepares, every new president faces a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't template, as James Deakin explains in his 1984 book Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth. These either-or constructions, Deakin writes, include:

How is the president getting along with the news media? Are they treating him well or badly? Is he a master of communications or an ineffective performer on the tube? Is he accessible to reporters and candid with them? Or is he secretive, misleading the press and throwing a cloak of national security over the administration's precious bodily fluids? Why doesn't he have more press conferences? Why have his press conferences become such increasingly meaningless spectacles? Why does he manipulate the press so brazenly to achieve his purposes? Why doesn't he use the press more effectively to achieve his purposes? Why is the press so subservient to the president? Why is the press so hostile to the president?

To Deakin's list of relations-with-the-press critiques that a president inevitably faces we can add these either-ors that Obama will have to endure from the press: Is he moving too fast on the economy or too slow? Is he too deferential to Congress or too pushy? Is he coddling Iran or baiting it? Why isn't he making good on his Iraq pledge—why is he throwing the Iraq victory away? Why is he repeating Bill Clinton's mistakes? Why can't he govern from the center like Bill Clinton? Isn't it time he made good on his domestic campaign promises? What makes him think the current economy can take the shock of universal health care? He's as secrecy-obsessed as George W. Bush! He's more combative with Congress than Bush was! You call that a liberal appointment to the Supreme Court?!

Obama will abandon the habit of walking on water he picked up during the past two years because you can't build a moat around the White House the way you can a presidential campaign. [...]

Obama the candidate thrived on the strategic ambiguity that made liberals think he was liberal, moderates think he was moderate, and conservatives think he was tolerable. But after the election, ambiguity must be replaced with action, and action is controversial—that is, the stuff of news.

It won't be war until Obama fights back, as he will. Everything the press does makes the job of governing more difficult, Deakin observes, even putatively sympathetic reporting. As Obama faces that reality, he'll become less and less Obama-esque, more vengeful and cloistered, and the press will have a fresh story to pursue: the decline of Obamaism and the triumph of Washington as usual. How much will pent-up antagonism at the overcontrolling Obama campaign contribute to the abrasive reports? You have to ask?

While the problem is endemic, it would impact a President Obama particularly hard because the press has laid down for him up until now. They've not prepared the public for the unfortunate reality that he isn't actually the Messiah.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 3, 2008 7:09 PM
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