President Obama recently referred to himself, only halfjokingly, as the “cool early-adapter president” regarding the use of digital technology to communicate with his supporters. But after having so successfully leveraged the Internet to circumvent the mainstream media, Obama is not sounding so bullish of late about this era in politics he helped to spark.
In the waning days of his presidency, Obama has expressed misgivings about the roiling tone of the 2016 campaign season, in which social media, partisan websites and saturation coverage have made it easier for candidates to disseminate their messages and distort their opponents’ views. And the Washington press corps has had a difficult time trying to sort it out.
While all presidents complain about news coverage, Obama has taken his critiques further than most and has fretted that a “balkanized” media has contributed to the partisan rancor and political polarization that he acknowledges has worsened during his tenure. In Obama’s view, although technology has made a wider variety of information more readily available, news consumers are now seeking out only what they “agree with already,” thereby reinforcing their partisan ideology.
“Some people are just watching Fox News; some people are just reading the New York Times,” Obama said in January in a YouTube interview with Destin Sandlin, creator of a popular video series on science. “They almost occupy two different realities in terms of how they see the world.”
The president has bemoaned the absence of a “common baseline of facts” underpinning the political debate and accused Republicans of peddling — through their own information channels — an “alternate reality” on issues such as climate change, the economy, and threats posed by Ebola and the Islamic State.
Obama’s critique has been more fervent in recent months as real estate developer Donald Trump has vaulted to the front of the Republican presidential field. Trump has dominated the campaign debate with a series of outlandish claims and insults that, though often disproved by journalists and disputed by opponents, have been amplified and intensified by his supporters on social media.
Obama has sought to rebut the claims of Trump and other Republican candidates, but he has expressed concern that an information overload, available on the ubiquitous smartphone, has obscured the facts and clouded the public debate over the health and future of the country.
At a town-hall-style event last week in Buenos Aires, Obama asserted that smartphones are “isolating people” and that news consumers “just surf the surface of information as opposed to analysis and understanding and study.” The public, he said, too often takes in “just the Twitter line without trying to figure out, okay, is this true or not? What are the facts?”
On Monday, Obama will deliver remarks at the Toner Prize dinner in Washington, honoring the year’s best political reporting. The award, established in 2009 in conjunction with Syracuse University, is named for former New York Times reporter Robin Toner, who had developed a reputation for journalistic rigor and depth before she died of cancer at age 54 in 2008, just weeks after Obama’s historic election.
Aides said that the president respects the role of the news media and thinks there are many talented journalists producing good work. But Obama, they said, will use the opportunity to remind his audience of the power it holds to help voters make sense of the campaign-season chaos and encourage newsrooms to explore the root causes of the nation’s anxiety with deeper complexity and nuance than the daily campaign-trail food fight.
The president agreed to appear at the awards banquet in part, aides said, because the intimate, serious-minded affair represents the opposite of next month’s sprawling, celebrity-infused White House correspondents’ dinner, at which he is traditionally expected to make jokes.
“If you look back to the State of the Union address, the president sees everybody in Washington owning a piece of the blame for the polarization,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking. “In that same spirit, he’s looking across the different pillars of democracy and saying, ‘Hey, how about we all get a little better in our jobs or more seriously up our game? Maybe we can actually improve the circumstances.’ ”
Obama, this official said, is not interested in pointing fingers, but rather in talking to “a group of people who happen to be the nerve center, people who can actually take leadership roles in changing the way stuff gets reported.”
In many respects, Obama will be preaching to the choir. News organizations have struggled to redefine themselves and remain relevant in a social media era propelled by incremental news scoops, instant punditry, snarky Twitter analysis and personality-driven invective.
The reordering of the traditional media roles have been exciting, according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, because “it allows unconventional forces to overcome the institutional barriers and get their messages out.” But, he added in a recent column about Trump’s rise, “there is a big downside.”
In Simon’s view, the diminishing “utility” of journalists has made them more expendable to those in power. He argued that Obama had contributed to the problem by restricting access for reporters and news photographers more deliberately than his predecessors. The White House produces its own video roundup of Obama’s weekly activities in a news reel-style package and publishes photographs from an in-house photographer.
For his part, Trump, who has a massive social media presence, has made himself available to the mainstream media, with regular appearances on cable news and semi-regular news conferences. The effect has been to produce his own 24-7 news factory that can sometimes overwhelm traditional gatekeepers with sheer volume and intensity.
“He’s not just a candidate — he’s a brand, a media outlet,” Simon said of the Republican front-runner in an interview. “If you’ve got 7 million followers on Twitter and a massive social media presence, to the people who believe in him and follow his campaign, he is the media outlet they trust. What The Washington Post or New York Times say is less relevant and meaningful to them than what Trump himself says.”
Since Obama’s 2008 campaign, news organizations have responded to the explosion of online information by devoting reporters to news “fact-checking” columns to help news consumers make sense of the avalanche of claims and counterclaims. The number of such projects worldwide has expanded by nearly 50 percent over the past year, from 64 to 97 projects, in 37 countries, according to the Duke Reporters’ Lab.
Breaking through is not easy. Bill Adair, the director of that program, joked that political partisans are similar to the fiercely loyal college basketball fans at his university who always believe that the referees are biased against the home team.
“People are going to resist the suggestion that their candidate is wrong. That’s not a new phenomenon,” said Adair, a longtime journalist who launched the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact website at the Tampa Bay Times in 2007. “But what is different now is there are more partisan outlets that reinforce the partisan feelings.”
Political campaigns have quickly adapted to the growing number of fact checkers by “weaponizing” their columns, in the words of former Washington Post and NPR journalist Mark Stencel, and using them selectively to boost their own candidates and attack their rivals.
Correct the Record, a super PAC aligned with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, has adopted many of the practices of the fact-checking sites to produce partisan material on its website and Twitter feed. The White House routinely defends Obama’s assertions by producing studies and statistics gleaned from partisan groups that are often misleading, such as on gun control, according to fact-checking journalists.
Peter Gosselin, Toner’s widower and a longtime reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, is convinced that his wife would not be enthusiastic about the current media and political environment.
Asked how Toner would have reacted to the modern era, Gosselin said: “My gut tells me what she would have done is the journalistic equivalent of nonviolent protest: Stick to what you’re doing. Just keep saying, hopefully without rancor, without distortion, ‘No, no, no, what goes on in this zone here is not way over to right or way over to left.’ ”