President Obama is set to lament the “balkanized” state of American news media on Monday night when he keynotes a prestigious journalism awards ceremony in Washington. And he’ll have a point: The political press in 2016 is increasingly splintered according ideology, with audiences picking up only the shards that reinforce their existing worldviews while ignoring those that challenge their thinking.
But Obama hasn’t exactly done his part as president to fix the problem. When it comes to granting interviews, he very often favors media that target particular slices of the electorate that are largely aligned with him already: left-leaning comedians, bloggers, YouTubers and podcasters.
He is more reluctant to submit to questioning by mainstream news outlets and conservative publications that would push back harder on issues on which his opponents disagree with him — and that might, you know, allow him to help the situation by reaching people who generally disagree with the president. Obama hasn't sat for an extensive interview with The Washington Post since his first year in office, for example.
Consider the forums in which the president has previously aired the kind of media grievance he is expected to repeat at Monday’s Toner Prize event.
YouTube star Destin Sandlin (Jan. 15, 2016): “Our media is now splintered. Some people are just watching Fox News; some people are just reading the New York Times. So they don’t even start with a common baseline of facts. They almost occupy two different realities in terms of how they see the world.”
The Daily Show (July 21, 2015): “The media is a bunch of different medias. There are some that get on my nerves more than others. I think it gets distracted by shiny objects and doesn’t always focus on the big, tough choices and decisions that need to be made.”
Vox (Feb. 9, 2015): “The balkanization of the media means that we just don’t have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago. And that just keeps on accelerating, you know. And I’m not the first to observe this, but you’ve got the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh folks, and then you’ve got the MSNBC folks.”
The pattern is unmistakable: To make a point about the folly of selection bias, Obama selects media with audiences that are mostly biased in his favor or aren't going to ask the toughest questions. He perpetuates the problem even as he denounces it.
On other occasions when the president has wanted to deliver an important message, he has chosen a media path of little resistance. When the Affordable Care Act insurance deadline was approaching in 2014, Obama promoted his signature health-care law on “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” a Funny or Die video series. Around the same time, the White House composed a GIF-filled post for BuzzFeed that listed seven reasons to purchase coverage.
Last year, after an alleged white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., Obama gave an extensive interview to “WTF,” a podcast that liberal comedian Marc Maron tapes in his Los Angeles garage.
That’s about as “balkanized” as it gets.
In his final State of the Union address, Obama said one of the few regrets of his presidency is that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse, instead of better.” Many factors contributed to that unfortunate reality, but one of them was surely this: Obama played into the fragmentation of the media by granting interviews that positioned him to preach to the choir and didn't do enough to try to speak to his detractors and answer their questions.
Voters who didn’t frequent the news sites and video streams he picked may have felt as if he not only disagreed with them but also didn’t even care to speak to them. As a result, Obama came to symbolize to some Americans the very division he often talked about trying to end.