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Does Obama Need the Press?
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 were 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.