Obama's Other Transition: Handling a Tougher Press Corps

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

Barack Obama figured out early on that he had better limit his media consumption before it consumed him.

After three months of campaigning, he stopped reading blogs. After six months, he stopped watching cable news shows. After nine months, he stopped reading the press clips, relying instead on his staff to flag important stories.

Obama said during a brief conversation last month that it was "just weird" to be constantly reading and watching reports on his candidacy, creating a "hall of mirrors" effect that he regarded as unhealthy. He said that cable news yakkers, just like those on ESPN, make provocative comments because they have so much time to fill, even though politics, in his view, is far more important than sports.

Now the president-elect must decide how to handle the media as he shifts from campaign mode to commander in chief. If he is overly influenced by editorial criticism, he could be thrown off course in ways that were rarely evident during his highly disciplined campaign. But if Obama tunes out the press, he could find himself isolated in a White House bubble.

Robert Gibbs, the affable spokesman who will become press secretary, sees no danger of that. "We ran promising a more open and transparent administration, and the president-elect will keep that promise," Gibbs says.

Journalists, who were widely seen as giving Obama an easy ride during the campaign, generally hailed his election as a breakthrough moment for racial progress. Once a president takes office, though, an adversarial relationship usually flourishes, at least with beat reporters.

"You know what?" MSNBC's Chris Matthews said last week. "I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work." Asked by morning host Joe Scarborough whether that was his job, Matthews said: "Yeah, that's my job, because this country needs a successful presidency more than anything right now." Funny -- it's hard to recall many journalists saying they wanted to make Ronald Reagan's or George W. Bush's presidency work.

Matthews, of course, is in the opinion business. Others see tougher scrutiny ahead for Obama.

"He's going to screw up -- make some mistakes -- and those will give journalists the opening to get in his face a little bit," says Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. "Obama doesn't ingratiate himself with the press the way the classic John McCain did. He shows a willingness to manipulate them and shoulder them aside. If he continues handling the press that way, it's going to breed resentment, and that's going to produce tougher stories."

Deggans, who heads the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, says television shows love to book African Americans who take on the Illinois Democrat. "I don't think it's going to be hard for black journalists to be critical of Obama, because once they are, media opportunities abound," he says.

Conservative commentator Amy Holmes, a former GOP Senate aide, says the press will be tempted to portray an "embittered, embattled Republican minority" as "thwarting the will of Barack Obama. Republicans will be going into a media environment of cheerleading for Obama that will characterize the opposition as nasty rather than reasonable."

Even if journalists chronicle Obama making occasional blunders, Holmes says, they will not question whether he is pushing "an agenda that is to the left of where the American people are." That assumes, of course, that he doesn't steer a more centrist course.

Obama may enjoy a respite after an inauguration that is all but certain to be covered as another watershed moment. Jim Warren, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and a Huffington Post columnist, predicts that he will get something of a honeymoon.

"There will be a lot of beat-sweetener pieces to cultivate sources," he says. "But within the year, normal competitive impulses will take over."

After eight years of President Bush, many people have forgotten the tense relations between the fourth estate and Bill Clinton, who spoke derisively of the "knee-jerk liberal press." The Arkansas native felt that Washington's media establishment viewed him condescendingly and was obsessed with scandal. Once major media outlets broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton railed against journalists who vacuumed up leaks from Ken Starr and his special prosecutor's office.

Obama, an obscure state senator until four years ago, has no such baggage, but neither has he tried to cultivate close relationships with journalists, even among liberal columnists who revere him. He limited his contact with traveling reporters, some of whom viewed him as aloof. And his tight-as-a-drum campaign almost never leaked or engaged in unattributed finger-pointing.

At the same time, the Obama team built a mighty digital operation that posted its videos on YouTube, was active on Facebook and sent text messages to supporters revealing the candidate's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate. That was a classic test of wills in which Obama was able to keep his decision from the media until 12:52 a.m. on the morning of the announcement.

When the Obama camp has wanted to put out a bit of news, it has tended to favor such outlets as Politico, whose bloggers were the first to get the word last week that the president-elect would name Gibbs as his top spokesman and Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.

"One of the legacies of the campaign is the de facto death of mainstream newspapers and broadcast outlets as the key influences," Warren says. "To what extent will the Huffington Post and MSNBC.com, perhaps, be the source of breaking news? There's a greater ability to control your message and to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers."

Obama faced some of those gatekeepers at his post-election news conference Friday. He drew a mixture of softballs, polite but firm questions about his policies and the query that probably generated the most interest: Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times asking what kind of dog he plans to get.

Will Obama feel the need to hold such sessions regularly, or will they be dismissed as a 20th-century relic? If you can beam your message to millions of computer and cellphone screens, who needs the filter of skeptical reporters?

But while major media organizations may be dismissed as dinosaurs these days, it's worth remembering that the most damaging moments of Sarah Palin's campaign came during her interviews with two network anchors, Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

Obama raised enormous expectations for a brighter, post-partisan future, which the New York Times says his aides are now trying to tamp down. When the messy process of governance fails to match his lofty rhetoric, journalists will have no choice but to point out the shortcomings.

Emanuel, for one, understands the game. The Chicago congressman was a bare-knuckle, press-savvy spin artist in the Clinton White House, leaking tidbits to favored organizations, playing reporters off each other and yelling at those who crossed him. He reached out to harsh critics, once having columnist William Safire, whom he called "Uncle Bill," over for dinner. When Clinton was launching an initiative on race relations, Emanuel arranged for the Wall Street Journal's Michael Frisby to get the first interview, because Frisby was the only black reporter covering the White House for a major outlet.

A campaign tends to be a self-contained world, consumed by questions over this or that poll or attack ad. A president is under constant bombardment from every direction -- members of Congress, rebellious bureaucrats, interest groups, corporate executives, foreign leaders -- all of whom will use the media as their megaphone. Even if he continues his practice of not reading about himself, Obama is unlikely to cede that battleground to his critics.

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