The media isn’t shy about telling President Obama how to do his job. But on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, it was the president's turn to share some thoughts on how journalists should do theirs.
At a news conference where he said the fight against terrorism “doesn’t have to change the fundamental trajectory of the American people,” the president took a brief detour to add this:
The media needs to help in this, I just want to say. You know, during the course of this week — a very difficult week — it is understandable that this has been a primary focus. But one of the things that has to happen is how we report on this has to maintain perspective and not empower in any way these terrorist organizations or elevate them in ways that make it easier for them to recruit or make them stronger.
As he spoke, Obama paused several times, seeming to choose his words carefully. He appeared to be trying to deliver a message as subtly as possible.
“He has a line he can’t cross, so he was being very measured,” said John G. Geer, who studies politics and media as chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt University. “The way I think about it is, this was a reminder from Obama — without being heavy-handed — that the media has a role to play. He knows the press is self-reflective, and this gives them a chance to think about it.”
Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce, however, didn’t seem to think the president was subtle at all.
“Here he’s telling the media, in other words, to do what he’s doing: ignore it, downplay it, don’t even discuss it, discuss what’s important to me and my narrative,” she said Monday during an appearance on Fox News. “That’s what he wants them to do. That’s what they’ve normally done. And this week, they stopped.”
For journalists, this is sensitive territory. Several autopsies of post-9/11 news coverage concluded that, as one UCLA research paper put it, “mainstream U.S. corporate media, especially broadcasting, have become instruments of propaganda for the Bush administration and Pentagon during spectacles of terrorism and war.”
Reporters obviously don’t want to aid terrorist groups, but they also don’t want to look like they’re in the president’s pocket. Some might hear faint echoes of the George W. Bush White House in Obama’s suggestion that journalists who don’t cover anti-terror efforts the "right" way could be helping the bad guys.
Robert Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said the messages differ by degree.
“Bush equated support of him with support of Team America and said, yes, indeed, media should support the team,” Entman said. “Obama said nothing like that, demanded no cessation in criticism of his administration and its policies. To oppose ISIS recruitment is hardly equivalent to playing on Team America. Obama said media should take responsibility not to cover terrorists in ways that would aid in their efforts to recruit.”
Entman is right. Obama’s remarks over the weekend were gentle by Bush standards. And it’s hard to argue with a call for conscientious reporting, whatever the source.
But there’s also something inherently uncomfortable about a president citing the threat of terrorism while wagging his finger at media coverage he doesn’t like or doesn't think fits the moment appropriately. At the very least, it’s worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks.