The White House press corps is sick and tired of not being taken seriously by this White House. That’s why they’re proud to announce the hiring of a comedian to host a dinner with Barack Obama. That makes sense to those who may have marinated in the Beltway environment a little too long – and so perhaps to reporters as well.
The White House found itself in the middle of a media imbroglio this week, thanks to two events that highlighted just how thoroughly the Obama administration has manipulated the political press. The long-complacent White House Correspondents Association went ballistic this weekend when excluded from a Barack Obama trip and kept away from his activities. Was this a sensitive diplomatic mission? Did Obama travel to meet world leaders to bring a new plan for universal peace and harmony?
Not exactly. Obama had traveled to Florida for a weekend away from the White House and to pay golf in some nice weather, a presidential tradition that Obama has embraced enthusiastically. While the media contingent cooled their heels far from Obama’s presence, golf legend Tiger Woods met up with President Obama – a golf partnership that got leaked to Golf Digest rather than the political media outlets paying for reporters to cover the President.
That prompted outrage from WHCA president Ed Henry of Fox News. “I can say a broad cross section of our members from print, radio, online and TV have today expressed extreme frustration to me,” Henry wrote in an official statement about the Tiger Woods scoop, “about having absolutely no access to the President of the United States this entire weekend.”
Why did Ed Henry get so exercised about this particular weekend? After all, this is a President who rarely allows open press conferences, a big break in tradition from previous administrations. Henry could have counted the number of such pressers on one hand in 2012, and one of those came courtesy of then-White House correspondent Jake Tapper’s public shaming of Obama after a series of puff-piece interviews in the entertainment media. Before the August press conference Obama grudgingly granted as a result of Tapper’s criticism, it had been more than six months since Obama had made himself available for open questions to the White House press corps.
This time, Obama didn’t bother granting a press conference to appease the WHCA. Instead, he met with the reporters for ten whole minutes on the flight back to Washington – off the record. Fox News host Greta van Susteren was aghast at the press corps’ willingness to take the bone tossed by Obama. “Off the record?” she asked. “Did they get a pat on the head from the President?”
On the heels of that, Politico then offered up a lengthy analysis of the dangers inherent in the imbalance between the White House and the press corps. Calling Obama “a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House,” Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen – but cautioned conservatives that it wasn’t because “a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated.” Rather, VandeHei and Allen claim that Obama “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).”
It’s true that Obama has managed to parlay friendly interviews into final words on subjects, with hardly any tough follow-up questions from reporters. That’s not entirely from Obama’s choice of interviewers, however. While noting that “[t]he super-safe, softball interview is an Obama specialty,” the pair point out that the most recent partner in that effort was CBS News’ Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, who normally has a reputation for playing hardball with American politicians.
Twenty-five years ago, CBS News anchor Dan Rather called then-Vice President George Bush a “wimp” and got a dressing-down from the World War II pilot. Last month, when asked by Piers Morgan why Obama chose him, Kroft replied, “I think he knows that we’re not going to play gotcha with him.” The result, said Kirsten Powers, was something that looked more like “propaganda” from “state-run media.”
Later in the same day as Politico’s essay explained that the press is somehow incapable of asking tough questions during an Obama interview, NBC’s Chuck Todd also insisted that this had nothing to do with a liberal bias in the media. “[T]he mythology of the big, bad non-conservative media has gotten into some offices,” Todd replied when asked why Republican politicians have become more reluctant to appear on networks like NBC. Just a couple of hours later, Todd’s network proudly announced that they had just hired Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod as their new political analyst, making Todd’s argument just a wee bit more difficult to take seriously.
Finally, the comedy comes back around to the comedian. WHCA president Ed Henry, who publicly demanded action and more respect from the White House after his group lost the Tiger Woods scoop, proudly announced that Conan O’Brien will host the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 27th with Obama in attendance, as usual.
The “nerd prom” is an annual event, intended to provide a respite from the normally-intense scrutiny that the media applies to a President and allow for a more congenial atmosphere. However, given the lack of intensity or scrutiny coming from the media during this presidency, we’re more likely to see O’Brien get tougher with the President than most of the attendees. The dinner will give Americans a break from the clown show that has been the softball media treatment of Obama.