President Obama's sitdown with comedian Zach Galifianakis for a web-only faux talk show called "BetweenTwo Ferns" is the latest example of how the president and his senior advisers have not only grasped the shifting media landscape but also moved to take advantage of the changes.
Obama's "Between Two Ferns" appearance comes on the heels of a sitdown with former NBA great Charles Barkley, an interview that ran during the All-Star game weekend last month. He's also done a podcast with Grantland's Bill Simmons. And a sitdown with Steve Harvey. He's done "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart six times -- including twice as president. (Hat tip to the amazing White House chronicler Mark Knoller for that info.)
People who have "interviewed" Obama in the last year pic.twitter.com/Zvuij8UN4B
— BuzzFeed Benny (@bennyjohnson) March 11, 2014
Now, compare those appearances to the number of times Obama has sat down with more "traditional" media outlets. The last time the Washington Post had an interview with Obama was in December 2009. The last time the New York Times had one was July 2013.
The conclusion? Obama and his team are big believers that the fracturing of the mainstream media into a thousand niche site has fundamentally altered how -- and with whom -- he should spend his time. Every president up until Obama spent most of their time talking with -- and leaking information to -- the "big" newspapers (WaPo, NYT, Wall Street Journal etc.) and the networks (CBS, ABC and NBC). Doing so wasn't even a decision; it was more like a foregone conclusion. If you wanted information out there, you had six -- or so -- options to make it happen.
Obama's election in 2008 coincided with a rapid change in that equation. The growth of non-traditional media -- from Huffington Post to The Daily Show to 1,000 other offshoots covering pieces and parts of the news cycle -- allows this president to pick his spots and his audiences in ways that were unthinkable even for George W. Bush. (Changing technology -- You Tube, Flickr, Twitter etc. -- also allows Obama to end-run the traditional media lens.) Obama grasped that change -- and the power it gave him to tailor messages to specific audiences and pick friendly questioners -- immediately upon entering the White House. In his first press conference as president, Obama called on Huffington Post's Sam Stein -- a moment that was seen as both a break with "how things have always been done" and a sign of a new media order.
Which brings us back to the "Between Two Ferns" skit. Obama detractors will declare it as beneath the president to subject himself to what is, in essence, a comedy sketch. Obama allies will respond that Obama appeared on the show to promote the Affordable Care Act to the so-called "Young Invincibles", the healthy young people who he badly needs to opt-in to the law in order to ensure its long term success. And "Between Two Ferns" is regarded by this White House as a significantly more impactful way to reach the 30 and under crowd than the vast majority of more traditional news sites and channels.
— Tara McGuinness (@HealthCareTara) March 11, 2014
Mainstream media types -- and President Obama's opponents -- don't like it. (And, for good reasons, as many of Obama's chosen questioners are not always the sorts of people willing to push him hard on uncomfortable subjects.) Like it or not, however, it shows how Obama has grasped the fundamental ways in which how people consume information has changed and how to use it to his advantage. It's a lesson all of the people -- Democrats and Republicans -- seeking to replace him would do well to learn.