Obama Courts Ethnic Press

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009 5:09 PM

Eddie "Piolín" Sotelo isn't a national media figure, but last month he found himself on the line with President Obama.

"We're so proud," the popular Los Angeles radio host said. "I know you are the president for everybody. . . . Congratulations on your accomplishment. . . . Is there some sort of network we could establish to be in communication regarding the comprehensive immigration reform? And personally, what can I do?"

The conversation last month was one of a spate of interviews that Obama has done with Hispanic media outlets. And the White House plans to do more, even though most of the questioners have been a tad tougher than Sotelo.

"We should have a conscious strategy of communicating through Hispanic media," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says in an interview. "It's one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. Telemundo is one of the most significant media outlets."

Telemundo apparently agrees. The Spanish-language network was granted an interview in Florida last month, days after complaining about being left out when the president appeared on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Anchor Pedro Sevcec asked Obama about the need to create jobs, especially in construction, an industry "very dear to the Hispanic community." Sevcec also asked whether Latin America would be a priority. And he noted that "our network, Telemundo, is starting a big campaign for Hispanics to make sure that they are counted in the next census. A lot of them are afraid, you know, of participating, because they think, 'I don't have the papers to live in this country.' " The president responded by encouraging Latinos to participate and saying it has been "true historically" that such information has not been shared with immigration authorities.

Sevcec says that his network is on "very good terms" with the White House and that the interview was important because of the millions of Hispanic immigrants living "in the shadows."

"You have the president of the United States saying, 'This is my word.' You can interview people in the census every day, and 100 of those interviews won't carry the power of a president."

Vice President Joe Biden invited three Hispanic journalists to a background briefing last month. One of them, Juan Carlos López, Washington correspondent for CNN en Español, asked him about administration policy toward Cuba. López did the same at an on-the-record sit-down with Emanuel, who said he wanted to be "sensitive" on Cuba policy because "there is a lot of domestic politics" among Cuban Americans. After some wire reports, in López's view, exaggerated that answer, Fidel Castro issued a lengthy, defiant response.

López says White House officials "understand the importance of keeping contact with the Hispanic media," and though he interviewed President George W. Bush twice, "we didn't have this kind of access."

Sevcec reported after an off-the-record briefing with a top official -- he won't confirm it was Biden -- that additional federal aid for ailing Citigroup was imminent. He says administration officials complained about the story, which turned out to be true. "Sometimes you say things they don't like and they let you know that," he says.

The nation's first African American president isn't neglecting black media outlets either. His first print interview after taking office was with Black Enterprise magazine. Editor in Chief Derek Dingle asked the president about the 12.6 percent unemployment rate among African Americans and how he plans to run the Minority Business Development Agency.

"He wanted to find another way to reach a segment of the population, minority business owners as well as African American professionals," Dingle says. He says the magazine first put the Illinois Democrat on its cover in 2004 and "quite admittedly, we did lean toward Barack Obama" during the presidential campaign, but now plans to hold the administration accountable.

Obama also spoke to Maryland-based radio host Warren Ballantine, who told the president he was "excited" about the stimulus bill and added: "You are honestly, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of black history."

Ballantine says that such interviews are a way for Obama to connect with "the grass roots" and that as a host, he brings "an everyday perspective. A lot of my counterparts in the media who are Caucasian are rich, and they're not in the streets. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity are multimillionaires. I'm a former union worker. I don't make that kind of money."

The risk for Obama would be if he were caught saying something different to the ethnic media than to other news organizations. He went to great lengths, after all, not to run as a minority candidate.

Emanuel says Hispanic outlets cover much of the same ground as other media organizations. "Obviously they have a higher interest in certain issues," he says. "But Hispanics are as interested in the economy as the rest of the country is."

Every administration does some outreach to minority outlets. But by talking to Black Enterprise well before the New York Times, which last week got its first sit-down interview since Election Day, Obama is shaking up the existing media order. Just as he took a question from the Huffington Post -- but not from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune or Wall Street Journal -- at his first news conference, the president is broadening the circle of access to include more sympathetic outlets.

The challenge for minority journalists is not to slip into the role of cheerleaders. If Telemundo is leading a campaign to register more Hispanics in the 2010 Census, viewers may wonder about the objectivity of its news reports on the subject. But most of the interviews so far with the president have been handled with professionalism.

The Telemundo interview did contain one revelation when Obama was asked how much Spanish he speaks.

"Un poquito," he replied--a little. In fact, Obama admitted, it took him 15 takes to cut a Spanish ad during the campaign.

Failing Grade

It was an eye-popping comment, stripped across the top of the Washington Times front page Friday.

"If you send a kid to [public] school in D.C.," Sen. Jim DeMint was quoted as saying, "chances are that they will end up in a gang rather than graduating."

But the South Carolina Republican, who is fighting to preserve the city's school-voucher program, didn't quite say that. Instead, his aides say, he was describing what a mother had told him she feared would happen if the congressionally mandated program allowing some students to attend private schools expired.

"He specifically said in the press conference that this is what parents are telling us," says spokesman Wesley Denton. "That was not reported in the Times. He does not believe these children are doomed to bad outcomes." After DeMint's office complained, the Times removed the story from its Web site and published a correction yesterday.

Executive Editor John Solomon says the paper has apologized to DeMint. He says DeMint's lead quote--the one that generated the big headline-"was inaccurately captured by the reporter. The words that were omitted brought important context to the senator's comments and the entire story, and as a result we disserved our readers."

Footnote: The Times plans to announce today that its new editorial page editor is Richard Miniter, a former editorialist for the Wall Street Journal Europe and Hudson Institute fellow. Miniter wrote during the campaign about the "visceral hatred of Sarah Palin flowing from so many in the commentariat," and his books include "Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror."

Sadness in Seattle

McClatchy Co., which owns nearly half of the Seattle Times, valued that investment at $102 million in 2006. Last week, the company said its share was worth zero.

And as Hearst prepares to shut down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it has invited some reporters to join a Web-only version of the paper. The Post-Intelligencer quotes one reporter as saying that "the offer increased his health insurance cost, cut his salary by an unspecified amount, offered to match his 401(k) contributions, required him to forgo his P-I severance pay, reduced his vacation accrual to zero and required him to give up overtime."

San Francisco Shootout

Speaking of Hearst, how bizarre is this? San Francisco Chronicle reporter Delfin Vigil takes out an ad in the rival San Francisco Examiner to denounce Hearst's threat to close the Chron as "unacceptable, unforgivable and even un-American."

Obama Adulation Watch

"I think I am developing a crush on America's first lady. Michelle Obama is more compelling than her husband. He's good, but she's utterly fascinating. . . . Her arms are becoming the stuff of legend.

". . . Okay, I admit it. When it comes to the first lady, I'm smitten." -- CNN's Jack Cafferty

In other news . . . a couple of new developments on the Rush front. Newt Gingrich said on "Meet the Press": "You've got to want the president to succeed. You're irrational if you don't want the president to succeed."

At the same time, as the Washington Times reports:

"The leader of the 1994 Republican Revolution was among several top Republicans who said Sunday that Rush Limbaugh is not the Republican Party's leader, and blamed the characterization on the Obama White House. 'He's not the leader of the Republican Party,' said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on NBC's 'Meet the Press.' 'Michael Steele's one of the leaders. Bobby Jindal, who you had on recently, is one of the leaders. Sarah Palin's one of the leaders. Eric Cantor's a rising new leader.'

"Mr. Gingrich called the week of Limbaugh furor 'a deliberate strategy by the White House,' specifically citing the 'intense partisanship' of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum has the cover story in Newsweek, which features Limbaugh with a bandage over his mouth and the word "ENOUGH!":

"A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as 'losers.' With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence--exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word--we'll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.

"Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.

"But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership? Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic party in the 1980s. He plays an important role in our coalition, and of course he and his supporters have to be treated with respect. But he cannot be allowed to be the public face of the enterprise--and we have to find ways of assuring the public that he is just one Republican voice among many, and very far from the most important."

A story I wrote last week quotedx-Bush adviser Mark McKinnon as saying his side tried to make Mike Moore, a liberal filmmaker, the face of the Democratic Party in 2004. Moore responds:

"What I have believed in, and what I have stood for in these past eight years -- an end to the war, establishing universal health care, closing Guantanamo and banning torture, making the rich pay more taxes and aggressively going after the corporate chiefs on Wall Street -- these are all things which the majority of Americans believe in too. That's why in November the majority voted for the guy I voted for. The majority of Americans rejected the ideology of Rush and embraced the same issues I have raised consistently in my movies and books.

"How did this happen? Considering how, for the past eight years, the Republican machine thought they could somehow smear and damage the Democrats if they said it was 'the party of Michael Moore,' it appears that the American public heard them loud and clear and decided that, 'hey, if you say Michael Moore is connected to the Democrats, then the Democrats must be OK!' "

Obama tells the NYT he is down on blogs:

" 'Part of the reason we don't spend a lot of time looking at blogs,' he said, 'is because if you haven't looked at it very carefully, then you may be under the impression that somehow there's a clean answer one way or another -- well, you just nationalize all the banks, or you just leave them alone and they'll be fine.' "

I'm surprised he didn't make the distinction that there are some smart blogs out there. Obama told me during the campaign that he gave up blogs because it was just too weird reading about himself all the time.

Obama added that he reads the big national newspapers in printed form. "I like the feel of newspapers," he said. So do I, Mr. President.

Is Obama dramatically pushing the country to the left? Andrew Sullivan challenges the conservative response:

"Much of the reaction on the right and center-right to Obama's budget has been a recourse to abstract principles. There's nothing wrong with such principles - low taxes, balanced budgets, small and limited government. I share them. But no self-respecting conservative would ever defend such principles without considering the full context in which we now find ourselves.

"To give a blindingly obvious example: to treat the stimulus package as just another expansion of government, a reckless lurch to the left, as Fox News has done, is absurd. As unemployment spikes, stocks crash, and deflation looms on the horizon, deficit spending means something else. It's a pragmatic, not a liberal decision.

"Now look at some less clear-cut contexts. The last thirty years have seen historically low tax rates for the successful. But they have also seen a sharp, globalization-fed increase in inequality.

"If your goal is to keep a polity in one piece during an economic crisis, raising some taxes on those who have had a relatively low-tax couple of decades, is again pragmatically defensible. If I thought Obama's goal was to redistribute for the sake of it, I'd be appalled. But that isn't what he's said and it isn't what he believes."

Interesting role reversal on the NYT op-ed page. David Brooks, having declared Obama a big-government liberal, gives the Obamaites a chance to respond and praises their "friendly cooperation." But, he says:

"The fact is, after years of economic growth, the White House still projects perpetual deficits of more than $500 billion a year. That's way too much, especially with the boomers' retirements looming. Moreover, Congress will likely pass the spending parts of the budget and kill the revenue parts, like the cap-and-trade energy tax and the limits on itemized deductions, thus producing much, much bigger deficits."

But Paul Krugman says that "when it comes to dealing with the banks, the Obama administration is dithering." He accuses the president's team of pushing "zombie ideas" that aren't helping to defuse the credit crisis.

Finally, Maureen Dowd champions Michelle's right to wear sleeveless dresses but adds:"Washington is a place where people have always been suspect of style and overt sexuality. Too much preening signals that you're not up late studying cap-and-trade agreements."

Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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