Obama's Other Transition: Handling a Tougher Press Corps
Monday, November 10, 2008; Page C01
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.