When the New York Times broke a story in June about the Obama administration’s plans to expand its efforts on immigration enforcement, rival reporters spied a hidden hand behind the news. With its prescient timing and abundant details, the article looked very much like an “authorized” leak, a bit of news stage-managed by White House officials.
Presidents, of course, have long manipulated select members of the news media with “exclusives” designed to maximize an announcement’s impact and enhance the administration’s standing. The Obama White House is no different, but it has played the game a little differently. It doles out scoops irregularly, White House reporters say, and does so primarily to news outlets with a perceived expertise or special authority on a topic.
In effect, it follows a strategy of market segmentation, steering leaks to a very short list of strategically valuable publications and journalists.
The Times tends to be the administration’s favored recipient for foreign policy and national security leaks. The Wall Street Journal (and, to a lesser extent, Bloomberg News) is the White House’s go-to outlet for economic policy developments. The Washington Post gets its share of advance information about budget issues and government agencies. Politico’s Mike Allen, who writes the insider Playbook feature, is a favorite for officially leaked personnel moves.
The Associated Press and USA Today — the biggest domestic news service and the most widely circulated newspaper, respectively — get whatever is left over. The AP, for example, was given the scoop about Obama’s decision not to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia last year.
A few regional players get in the game, too. During the auto industry bailouts, newspapers in Michigan and Ohio — home to many of the largest domestic auto plants — were sometimes tipped to White House announcements. Obama’s communications aides also “advance” presidential trips or regional initiatives by offering exclusive information to nearby media outlets; the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, WCCO-TV, got the advance word in June about a local woman with whom Obama would meet during his trip to the area.
Meanwhile, the rest of the media, including journalists the White House deems especially tough or ideologically hostile, are left to chase the day’s official leak.
“Every White House has a slightly different style,” says Ann Compton, the veteran ABC News White House reporter who retired last month. “All seem to approach reporters who are friendly to the issue at hand. A complex tax story isn’t going to get a lot of play on ABC TV, but it would in the Wall Street Journal.”
Compton points out that the White House’s leak strategy includes playing defense as well as offense. “If a news organization not generally friendly to the White House is calling around, clearly in possession of advance information, [the] White House could leak the details to a more friendly competitor, scooping the less-friendly reporter,” she said.
Not all stories about the White House — in fact, not many — are the result of such choreography between official sources and reporters. Most news stories are reported with only limited cooperation from White House sources, and sometimes over their objections. Almost every reporter on the beat can recall a story that drew an angry response from the White House’s press aides, and it usually involved hard work, not a handout.
New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger broke a bombshell story about the Obama administration’s role in cyberattacks against Iran in June 2012. The story was nearly immediately attacked by some politicians as an election-year gift from the White House to the Times.
“The story required 14 months of reporting in many nations,’’ Sanger said. “Covert operations are not something any administration I’ve ever covered hand out as planned leaks, and that’s especially true in the new world of cyberwarfare.” Given that the story pointed out serious flaws in the U.S. cyberattack, “the whole narrative that this was planted as a success story [for the administration] always struck me as a little odd.’’
The White House declined to comment for this report. But a former Obama communications aide confirmed the basic outlines of the administration’s approach.
In addition to handpicking the news outlet and its perceived audience, “you also have to take into consideration the nuances and expertise of the individual reporter,” said the former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Times’ Peter Baker, a veteran of the White House beat since the Bill Clinton administration, describes the Obama White House’s tactics as similar to those of the Clinton era.
“The Bush people didn’t [leak] nearly as much for routine kinds of news,” he said. “They generally acted on the premise that if the president was going to announce something, they weren’t going to tell anyone beforehand and everyone would learn it all at once. That was frustrating at the time, but in hindsight I have fresh appreciation for it because the current system means we end up chasing ephemeral and essentially meaningless scoops doled out based on some sort of list.”
But that seems to be precisely the idea. By husbanding the news and feeding it out strategically, Obama’s aides are counting on an echo effect in the media. News organizations that land an exclusive tend to give the story bigger headlines and more prominent play compared with an announcement that is released to every reporter simultaneously. This kind of prominence increases the chances that other news organizations will follow the story, amplifying it and keeping it alive for another news cycle, the former Obama communications aide said.
“We learned that broad announcements that go to every outlet simply don’t receive the type of headline coverage that we were looking for,” the former official said. “The daily announcement stories get filed at the back of the paper. Offering an exclusive is a sign of demonstrating you’re convinced that the news is significant enough that it deserves elevated treatment. And that sends other reporters chasing after the news.”
Jennifer Loven, a former White House reporter for the AP, describes the process as one of co-dependence: Reporters need and want scoops, and the White House is all too happy to serve, if not manipulate, that need.
“The manic, relentless nature of the media these days and reporters’ interest in even tiny wins are as much to blame for the otherwise sort of bewildering and ongoing demand for these scoops, even the uninteresting or micro-incremental ones, as is a hyper-controlling White House press operation,” said Loven, a managing director of the Glover Park Group, a communications firm.
“But yes, the hyper-controlling White House press operation is constantly on the prowl for new ways to manipulate. I don’t think that changes from one White House to another, except that each one naturally finds more tools and tricks. In my experience, the Bush White House was incredibly controlling. But then the Obama White House came along, and they are too, and then some.”
Giving a reporter a tip-off enables the White House to “shape” the story it wants to tell, the former Obama communications aides said. This means working closely with a single reporter and answering detailed questions, a process that wouldn’t be possible with a general announcement.
It doesn’t always work, but it has a high enough success rate to make it a tool to return to again and again.
“Ideally, a solid print piece hits overnight, the wires and morning shows chase it in the morning, and then a public statement by a member of the administration that day helps to amplify the coverage,” the former aide said. “But there are certainly instances in which other reporters don’t see any need for a follow-up, or the exclusive itself downplays the significance of the news, in which case the other pieces of the plan can fall on deaf ears.”