There's a new piece in Rolling Stone magazine about the tense -- to be kind -- relationship between the Obama White House and the media tasked with covering it. The piece is interesting on a lot of levels not least of which because it was written by Reid Cherlin, a former press operative for President Obama who left the White House to pursue a career as a journalist. (Editor's note: Cherlin wrote a profile of me for GQ online a few years back.)
In the Rolling Stone piece, Cherlin tries to answer two basic questions: 1) Are things worse now than they have been in the past? and 2) If so, whose fault is it?
On question number one, the answer is a resounding yes. Virtually every person Cherlin talks to -- whether they are an Obama partisan or a reporter -- agrees that things are in fact worse now than ever before. While things were never all wine and roses between the media and White Houses past, it's clear that the relationship has broken down badly of late. Each side views the other not only skeptically but with something close to open contempt. "There's never been a White House since John Kennedy where the president and the press have had a really good relationship," former White House communications director Anita Dunn tells Cherlin. "But I do think that, with every administration, it's gotten worse." (She's right.)
The bigger -- and far harder to answer -- question is who, if anyone, bears primary responsibility for the dismal state of press-president relations.
Cherlin, not surprisingly given his role as a former Obama staffer, tilts toward putting more of the blame on the media -- and its changing imperatives in a digital age. He writes:
The press corps itself, under immense financial and technological pressure, is in the process of remaking itself to fit a polarized country where users increasingly choose opinionated news sources that suit their own tastes. The result, six years into the Obama term, is that the administration and the press are in essence tweeting past each other, even as each decries its treatment at the hands of the other. The White House suspects that reporters intentionally sensationalize their stories; reporters suspect that the White House plays with the facts to get its message out. Both suspicions are correct.
Good point. There is little question that the biggest growth area in journalism over the past five to ten years is in overtly partisan news-gathering operations where people of a particular political persuasion can get news that fits their world view. (BREAKING NEWS: People like to be told their views are the right views.) Non-partisan media outlets have struggled over that same period, trying to understand where we fit into that newly polarized world. Again, Cherlin writes smartly: "People are increasingly getting information from an atomized, partisan, choose-your-news smorgasbord, where you're as likely to process the State of the Union through your brother-in-law's Facebook rants, the tweets of a few favorite reporters, and the top 17 GIFs of Nancy Pelosi blinking as curated by BuzzFeed." Yup.
There's also some criticism in his piece of the beloved White House's tactic of end-running the media. "Obama, during his two campaigns for the presidency, had made a point of going over the heads of the media (denigrated as 'the filter') and communicating directly with voters," writes Cherlin. From the start of Obama's 2008 campaign and running right up until today, the White House has done little to hide its disdain for the media, which it believes is focused on getting clicks and eyeballs rather than covering the truly important news of the day. (As noted above, there is a grain of truth in that attack; the ability to quantify every piece of content has made reporters in all mediums much more aware of what does well and what doesn't. And aware of that information in real time.) Given that, if the White House can communicate with the public directly, it will. And, technological advancements have made it easier than ever to do just that.
Which brings me to what bears -- in my mind -- the lion's share of blame for the current divorced-parents-just-trying-to-get-along-for-the--sake-of-the-kids relationship that the White House and the media "enjoy." (In my terrible metaphor, the kids are the American public.) And that is technology.
Technology -- represented here by the development of instantaneous video and photo uploading via You Tube and Flickr as well as the massive boom in social media sites like Facebook and Twitter -- has fundamentally re-oriented the relationship between politicians, the media and the average person. Presidents all the way back to George Washington have wanted to control how information flowed out of their Administrations. They just lacked the technology to make it happen. It is not a coincidence that the last three Administrations have been regarded as increasingly secretive; technology allows them to do what every politician has wanted to do since the beginning of time.
That end-running, however, has consequences. Reporters, used to being the main conduit through which news travels, have been forced to look for other ways to cover the news. Take this blog as an example. When I started it back in 2005, it did nothing but offer straight news reporting. This happened, the people involved said that. I did everything I could to break news in order to stand out; that was the coin of the news-gathering realm. As the blog -- and I -- got older, it became something different. With news being broken so regularly via Twitter -- and often by the principles who had the news to give rather than the reporter they no longer had to give it to -- I thought that the best way to spend my time was doing reported analysis, reacting to the news and trying to figure out answers to the "so what" and "now what" questions. Now, the blog is entirely analytical -- and we have leaned in hard to the boom in data-driven journalism with charts, maps and the like.
Technology allowed politicians the ability to move beyond the media filter. It also allowed journalism to move beyond doing only "who, what, when and where" reporting. (For the record, that sort of reporting remains central to the news business. My only point is that lots of other ways to tell stories have come along -- facilitated by advancing technologies.) The traditional dynamics that governed the White House-media relationship for decades are in the process of disappearing, wiped away by the fundamental manner in which technology has changed the way information is produced and consumed.
A new relationship will eventually develop that takes into account how technology has altered the way things used to be. But, it hasn't taken hold just yet. And so, at the moment, we're stuck. And no one is happy about it.
Want more on this topic? Watch WaPo's Scott Wilson's terrific speech on the subject entitled "Covering the White House in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and the Permanent Campaign".