President Obama used a keynote speech at an annual journalism dinner to lament the often divisive and sometimes vulgar state of American politics and to call on reporters to work harder to hold politicians accountable.
“Real people depend on you to uncover the truth,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 450 Monday at a dinner for the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting in Washington.
Obama has delivered a series of speeches this year in which he has expressed worry about the country’s gridlocked, dysfunctional government and the angry tone of the current election season.
Much of his State of the Union address in January was devoted to the country’s deep partisan divide, which has worsened during his time in the White House. Obama returned to that theme a few weeks ago in a speech to the Illinois state legislature, where he served before coming to Washington.
“As I go into my last year, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how this system — how this crazy notion of self-government works,” he said. “How can we make it work. And this is as important to making it work as anything. People getting information that they can trust and that has substance and truth and facts behind it.”
Although Obama hasn’t shied away from press criticism during his seven years in office, this was his first major speech on the role of the rapidly changing media in American democracy.
This year’s prize for political reporting went to Alec MacGillis, who covers politics and government for ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on investigative journalism. MacGillis previously worked for The Washington Post.
Obama spent much of his remarks describing the example of Robin Toner, the first female national political correspondent for the New York Times. Toner, for whom the journalism prize was named, died in 2008 and wrote frequently about Obama in the Senate and on the campaign trail.
“She treated the public with respect,” Obama said, praising her ability to explain “complicated, esoteric political issues” in a way that Americans could understand.
Obama’s remarks often sounded like a lament for a bygone era of fact-based journalism before Twitter, Facebook and even cable television news.
“What we’re seeing right now does corrode our democracy and our society,” he said. “When our elected officials and political campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what is true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make decisions on behalf of future generations.”
Without mentioning Republican front-runner Donald Trump by name, he criticized news organizations for giving the former reality television star-turned-politician long hours of airtime to insult rivals or make suspect promises.
The country “would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when the politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises that they can’t keep,” Obama said, “and there are reporters here who know they can’t keep them.”