Obama keeps newspaper reporters at arm’s length
By Paul Farhi,
“Entertainment Tonight” scored one last year. The New York Times did not.
“The View” has gotten several. The Washington Post hasn’t had one in years.
America’s newspapers have trouble enough these days, what with shrinking ad revenue and straying readers. But the daily print-and-pixel press also hasn’t gotten much love lately from the biggest newsmaker in the business: President Obama.
When Obama does media interviews these days, it’s not with a newspaper. TV gets the bulk of the president’s personal attention, from his frequent appearances on “60 Minutes” to MTV to chitchats with local stations around the country. Magazines — including the New Republic, which recently landed an interview conducted by its owner, Facebook co-founder and former Obama campaign operative Chris Hughes — are a distant second, followed by radio.
Newspapers? Well, Obama may be the least newspaper-friendly president in a generation.
TV interviews enable the president to take his message directly to a wide number of viewers, largely free of the “filter” that a print interview may entail. On TV, after all, the president rarely contends with contradictory comments from opponents or the shades-of-gray context about an issue that newspaper and online stories often offer.
White House officials “have been fairly clear that broadcast interviews are a more valuable venue for them,” said David Lauter, Washington bureau chief of the Tribune Co.’s newspaper group, which includes the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel. “We’ve had several conversations with them during the campaign. . . . Ultimately, their feeling was, if it doesn’t have a broadcast component, they’re not very interested.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney says it’s nothing personal. Without addressing newspapers specifically, Carney said in an e-mail that Obama’s interviews are doled out based on “the best use of the president’s time. . . . He’s done TV and print, and will continue to do both.”
But Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton’s first press secretary, said Obama’s lack of interest in newspapers also reflects a changing media ecosystem. “Newspapers increasingly reach smaller audiences,” she said. What’s more, “they’re edited. You have a lot less control” over the message.
Obama was stingy with newspaper interviews when he first came to the White House in 2009, but the well has nearly dried up since the 2010 midterm elections. He spoke with USA Today and the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk during the campaign last year and had an off-the-record talk (later made public) with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board in October.
Each of those interviews had strategic value. USA Today is a national paper with the second-largest circulation (after the Wall Street Journal). The Virginia and Iowa papers are in states that were critical to Obama’s reelection chances. (Despite the rare interviews, the Register endorsed Mitt Romney for president; the Pilot made no endorsement).
But most of the nation’s biggest papers, whose reporters cover the White House every day, have remained on the outside looking in. The Washington Post landed its last on-the-record meeting with the president nearly four years ago, as did the Wall Street Journal; the New York Times last got to him in the fall of 2010. The Boston Globe has never had an interview while Obama was in office, nor has the Los Angeles Times, according to the Nexis database and the newspapers. Even Obama’s hometown papers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, have been stiffed.
What’s more, despite a string of interviews with ethnic broadcasters, including Telemundo and Univision recently, Obama has never consented to an interview with any member of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization consisting of 210 African-American-owned newspapers, said Robert W. Bogle, the organization’s former president. Obama and George W. Bush were the first presidents who haven’t done so since Franklin Roosevelt, notes Bogle, the chief executive of the Philadelphia Tribune.
The cold shoulder from the White House has led, predictably, to expressions of disappointment among newspaper journalists.
“It used to be taken as a matter of course that the major newspapers would get an annual interview,” said Jackie Calmes, a White House reporter for the New York Times. “Now I take it for granted that it’s not going to happen.”
Anders Gyllenhaal, Washington bureau chief for the McClatchy newspaper chain, laments that the White House “is missing an opportunity” to address millions of newspaper readers. Before the Democratic Convention in Charlotte last summer, Gyllenhaal said, McClatchy put in a request to interview the president on behalf of its 30 daily newspapers, which include the Miami Herald and the hometown Charlotte Observer. The request was “laughed off” by the White House communications staff, he said.
The irony, says David Leonhardt, the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, is that “we know that the president is an avid reader of newspapers. Reporters often hear from people in the White House that he had thoughts or objections or praise for something [the reporters] wrote.”
Overall, Obama gave more than twice as many interviews to media outlets during his first term as Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and the younger Bush did, said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies the presidency and the news media. But Obama’s share of print interviews is lower than his immediate predecessors’, she said.
Another key advantage of television is that it enables the president to target his message to specific audiences. In his interviews with Univision and Telemundo, for example, he talked about immigration reform, presumably an issue of intense interest to the networks’ Spanish-speaking viewers. He pitched ideas to address climate change in an interview with MTV in October, presumably in a bid to win over younger voters. On “The View,” he has appealed to the program’s large female audience.
The Obama White House has also embraced blogging and social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr that bypass the middlemen of the mass media altogether. Obama’s Twitter feed, with nearly 27 million followers, reaches more people than all of the nightly news broadcasts combined and more than the total circulation of the 75 largest daily papers.
The White House Correspondents’ Association, an organization that advocates on behalf of the journalists who cover the president, says its primary concern isn’t Obama’s choice of interviews but the erosion of press access generally. The group has been seeking more presidential news conferences and Oval Office “sprays,” brief opportunities for reporters to fire questions at the president and visiting dignitaries.
Such availabilities help the news media hold the president accountable, said Fox News reporter Ed Henry, speaking as the WHCA’s president.
“I understand that there’s some bellyaching about [Obama’s interviews], but it’s a free country, and the president can choose whomever he or she wants to sit down with,” Henry said. He added: “This president made a big deal about access and transparency in 2009. We should hold him to it.”
For its part, The Post has made several overtures to the president and his staff since the paper’s last interview with Obama in July 2009. Despite striking out, the paper intends to keep pressing its case, said Kevin Merida, the paper’s managing editor.
“We’re always trying to get an interview with the president,” he said. But, he added, “our job is to provide the most complete, deep and penetrating coverage of the presidency that we can. [Interviewing Obama] isn’t essential to what we do day to day. We’ve demonstrated we can produce great White House coverage . . . without ever getting an interview with the president.”
Still, not every newspaper gets turned down. Last year, on the eve of a White House visit by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, one finally got some face time with the president. The lucky recipient: La Stampa, an Italian paper.