The Presidency and the Press

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

The White House distrusts the media, reporters feel persecuted - a former Obama spokesman on the history of the toxic relationship

Somewhere between Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, with Air Force One cruising just shy of the speed of sound, Barack Obama decided to have a word with the press.

It has been tradition for Obama to make a visit back to the press cabin during the last leg of exhausting presidential foreign trips – just a friendly off-the-record chat – but this junket, a barnburner taking the chief executive to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines this past April, wouldn't be over for three days. The president's blood was up over two analysis pieces in The New York Times. One, written by national security correspondent David Sanger and timed for Obama's arrival in Seoul, accused the administration of dangerously underestimating Kim Jong-Un. A second story, splashed on the paper's front page, had effectively declared the trip a failure while it was still in progress: "President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on Thursday," it read, citing the inability to reach a trade deal with Japan and the breakdown of Middle East peace talks. That piece had been co-bylined by White House correspondent Mark Landler, who had been tagging along on the president's jaunt and hence was at that moment sitting in the press cabin.

Jay Carney, the press secretary, arrived to give the heads-up and secure the standard agreement from the reporters to treat Obama's visit as off the record, meaning that the contents could never be published or broadcast. Carney was followed by the president himself, who assembled his lanky eminence against the bulkhead at the fore of the cabin and proceeded to dress down Landler and his colleagues.

With the chat being off the record, a definitive accounting of what was said is hard to come by; it is clear, though, that the thrust of the president's message was this: Foreign policy is hard, you guys are scoring it like a campaign debate, and moreover, you're doing it inaccurately. He went further, telling the dozen or so reporters that what he favored was a judicious use of American power, and that his primary concern was not to get the country embroiled in situations from which it might take a decade to extract ourselves. He offered up an oddly sophomoric mantra for his foreign policy: "Don't do stupid shit."

The White House insists that Obama's walk to the back of the plane wasn't motivated solely by irritation, and as a rule, correspondents say they value the chance to hear the president explain his thinking. But if the idea was to help shape the coverage, well, then that didn't work either. "Obama Criticized News Coverage During Off-the-Record Meeting With Reporters," flashed Huffington Post media writer Michael Calderone. "Stop whining, Mr. President," Maureen Dowd wrote with glee.

It was the latest in what has come to seem like an endless string of bad headlines: ongoing Benghazi investigations, bias and deleted e-mails at the IRS, indecision about Syria, the health care website fail, the conundrum of Ukraine, mismanagement at the VA, redeployment of American troops to Iraq, and the cringe-worthy handling of the coverage of the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The discomfort here is more than just the ritual excoriation of a second-term American president: It's more jarring, and more lurid, because it runs contrary to the set idea of coziness between Obama and the news media.

I worked in Obama's press operation for four years, two on the first presidential campaign and two as a spokesman at the White House, responding to crises and commenting for reporters, and watching up close the rhythms of the particularly sour relationship between the president and the press. I'm biased in that I think Obama is right about most things. I also believe he'll be remembered as an excellent president. Which is strange to say, because if you are a consumer of any kind of political news these days, the only impression you get is that the Obama presidency is on the verge of collapse, and that he either doesn't know or doesn't seem to care. It's a complete disconnect, and it has everything to do with how the president is covered.

No, Barack Obama never had reporters eating out of his hand the way that right-wingers love to allege – even though Obama's intellectual approach made him seem like someone who could just as easily have been a columnist as a candidate. Appearing at his first Correspondents' Dinner, in 2009, the president joked, "Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me." But even as polite laughter settled over the black-tie crowd, there was ample evidence that the old way of the news business – in fact, the news business entirely – was falling away, and with it, the last shreds of comity between subject and scribe.

Obama, during his two campaigns for the presidency, had made a point of going over the heads of the media (denigrated as "the filter") and communicating directly with voters. With Obama in office, reporters have complained that the approach has sometimes bordered on pathology. Press photographers have loudly groused about a lack of access to the president – the White House often prefers to send out its own official shots – and reporters covering the beat say they are generally kept in the dark about what the president is actually doing. "At the White House, you're cordoned off like veal," says CNN's Jake Tapper, a former White House correspondent. Worse, the administration has initiated or continued high-profile legal action against reporters entangled in leak cases, most notably James Risen of The New York Times. Risen called this administration "the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation."

Meanwhile, the press corps itself, under immense financial and technological pressure, is in the process of remaking itself to fit a polarized country where users increasingly choose opinionated news sources that suit their own tastes. The result, six years into the Obama term, is that the administration and the press are in essence tweeting past each other, even as each decries its treatment at the hands of the other. The White House suspects that reporters intentionally sensationalize their stories; reporters suspect that the White House plays with the facts to get its message out. Both suspicions are correct.

"Like any period of tumultuous change, it's not a happy one," says Obama's former communications director Anita Dunn. But the consequences run deeper than a lack of good feeling. In our history classes we mythologize the idea that a president can change the world just by speaking: "Ask not," or "Tear down this wall." We summon the image of FDR's fireside chats – but what would they have been without that obedient row of network microphones? The pliant, monolithic news media of old is simply gone, and with it, one of the greatest powers of the presidency. "This idea that somehow there's a bully pulpit that can be used effectively," Dunn says, "to communicate with everybody in this country at the same time and get them all wrapped around one issue – it's very much an idea whose time has passed."

The origin story of Obama's messy relationship with the press is the origin story of the president himself and his seminal 2008 campaign. Even as Obama was showing off an electrifying knack for motivating and organizing people, his team was beginning to grapple with what was quite obviously a media world in the throes of reinvention. To start with, there was Politico, a website founded just as the race began. Opinionated, grabby and lightning-quick, Politico played to the adrenaline junkie in every reader with content that was cheap to produce and a subject – the vagaries of political fortune – that was inexhaustible. Obama's advisers detested Politico from the start, accurately recognizing its potential to wreak havoc on their carefully crafted narratives, and to inspire their competitors to indulge in the same bad habits.

The picture deteriorated further in April of that year, during the grinding final stage of the Obama-Clinton primary. A story appeared on Huffington Post, itself only three years old, reporting on comments Obama had made in a private fundraiser: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter," he'd said of Pennsylvania voters. "They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Robert Gibbs, at the time Obama's traveling communications director, remembers seeing the clip arrive in his inbox: "I hit 'reply all' and said, 'This is going to be a ginormous problem,'" he tells me. Bittergate seemed like a standard-issue political firestorm – except for the fact that it came not from a newspaper but from a private citizen. Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter and a self-described "teacher, editor and writer," had attended the fundraiser and wrote it up of her own volition. The lines between citizen, journalist, columnist and partisan were disappearing for good, and along with them, much of a candidate's ability to shape his own message as it percolated outward.

The campaign began exploring ways to re-exert control, ignoring the media altogether. Campaign manager David Plouffe and other senior advisers made a virtue, even a show, of shrugging off press criticism. Instead, they amped up efforts to put the campaign's unfiltered message directly in voters' inboxes, social-media feeds and television sets. Significant strategy announcements would be made in the form of videos, with Plouffe speaking straight into the camera, rather than through news releases or strategic interviews. Even the venerated VP announcement, a tradition of modern campaigning, got overhauled. Dunn, who was at the time a campaign communications strategist, recalls a planning meeting in which "some of the folks who had done the vice-presidential announcements for Clinton and Gore were talking about how they would work with AP and they would do this and that" to plant the official news in widely read outlets. Dunn was seated next to the campaign's director of new media, Joe Rospars. "And Rospars is looking at me with that 'we're not doing it that way' look on his face." Rospars, Dunn and Plouffe decided that Obama would make his big announcement by text message. It was a clever ploy to get the supporters to sign up for text alerts. But it was also a clear fuck-you to the press, a very public way of cutting them out of the relationship between Obama and the voters. The campaign "went out of its way to let the press know we were communicating around them," Dunn says.

The strategy looked awfully effective. There was some groaning from reporters, but the adulatory coverage continued to roll in, detailing Obama's building momentum and his eventual thrashing of John McCain (there was similar coverage again in 2012, when he thrashed Mitt Romney). But you're going to get nice stories written about you when you're winning primaries and helping to rewrite America's troubled racial history. The question is what would happen when things started going badly. Because when you are governing, everything is going badly all the time.

On the first campaign I ever worked on, in the middle of dealing with a particularly bad story for our candidate, a veteran staffer dropped a pearl of advice: "Just remember," he said, "your worst day on the campaign is better than your best day in the White House."

It turned out to be only a slight exaggeration. The president is nominally in charge of so much that it often feels like the power dynamic inverts, and that the White House exists to take blame for the misdeeds of others – very often agencies or bureaucrats over which you have essentially zero control. Nowhere is that frustration felt more than in the press office. "At the White House we have to have an answer for everything," says Carney, the recently departed press secretary. "Events that are completely organic and are not in your control and you don't have a lot of levers of power to affect become things you have to answer for very quickly."

It's a dynamic that was on display even on the day Carney announced that he was resigning, in late May. That morning, the president had come to the briefing room to formally concede the abuses at the Veterans Health Administration and announce that Secretary Eric Shinseki would resign after all. This was a classic-order Washington scandal, not because it isn't bad that veterans face long waits and substandard care, but because anyone who's come into contact with the VA in the past 30 years knows that vets face long waits and substandard care on a systemic basis, and that firing the head of the agency probably will do nothing to change that. "But Washington has these things where in order for a story to stop and the next chapter to be written," says Gibbs, Obama's first White House press secretary (and for several years my boss), "there have to be these inflection points," like ritual firings. The press seemed eager to keep the story going, however, and at the afternoon's briefing Carney had just answered a question – about the president's statement that morning that even Shinseki hadn't known about all the problems – when the president himself walked in to announce that Carney was stepping down from the job after a little more than three years in the post.

"Jay has become one of my closest friends," Obama said, his voice almost quivering. Carney stood by as his boss announced that Carney's deputy, Josh Earnest, would succeed him in the role. Obama extolled Earnest's many nice qualities, "a coach's son" from Kansas City. "Be nice to Jay on his farewell tour," he admonished the reporters, "and be nice to Josh during his initiation," before ad­libbing, "which I'm sure will last maybe two days – or perhaps two questions."

There was some dutiful laughter in the rows of folding blue press chairs, but everyone understood that this was, of course, not a joke. Carney had been a reporter at Time for 20 years before moving into government; even if no one expected a love affair in the briefing room, then at least that shared history would help everyone see eye to eye. "The press turned on him in about four minutes," one adviser to the White House tells me, "because that's their job."

"There's never been a White House since John Kennedy where the president and the press have had a really good relationship," says Dunn. "But I do think that, with every administration, it's gotten worse."

Presidential histories are indeed studded with tales of media disruption and the anguish it's caused, going back at least as far as Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers. The Clinton years saw a charismatic man collide with the monstrous new 24-hour news cycle; Fox News and Drudge whirred to life just as the Lewinsky scandal broke. Press secretary Mike McCurry agreed to let the White House briefing be televised live – he recently called this a "fatal mistake" – remaking the Q&A into the sordid food fight it is today. With the second Bush administration came the ginned-up case for the Iraq war and a general presumption that the press corps was hostile to the GOP agenda. When The New York Times broke the story of the administration's warrantless wiretapping, Bush called the report "shameful." One of the Times reporters on the story was Risen, who later found himself the subject of a government subpoena for revelations of skullduggery in his book, State of War. The ascendance of Obama, the former constitutional-law professor and frequent critic of Bush policies, would have seemed to signal a warming, but none has come. In June, the Supreme Court, at the urging of Obama's Justice Department, declined to hear Risen's appeal.

The administration feels it has inherited some of the friction from these prosecutions. "There's no doubt these cases were a huge source of tension last year," says the White House adviser, "but these are Bush investigations. The president expressed both publicly and privately his frustration with the way they are being handled and has said reporters should never be in trouble for doing their job."

There are many, Carney included, who dismiss the idea of a worsening trend line, pointing to the deeply rancorous relationship under Clinton even before Lewinsky, for example. But you don't have to look very hard to find ample evidence of faster change and greater stress, on both sides, that drive the feeling of decay. The now-familiar declines in viewership and readership, and the wholesale slashing of newsroom jobs, have meant more problems for reporters than just questions about job security. New kinds of news sites have swept in to fill the vacuum, offering cheaper and clickier stories than even the dreaded Politico. Legacy media companies and the webby newcomers like BuzzFeed are in a pitched battle to be first, or at least not last, and to spin the story of the day into something arrestingly meaningful.

When I catch up with Carney a few days after he left the White House, he says one effect "of all the cutting and slashing" of the news media is that "everybody's strung out and incapable of taking a breath and actually thinking about what they're saying or writing." It drives conflict between the president's staff and the press, he says, because reporters are under so much pressure and constantly demanding that the White House confirm every rumor and react to every slight. "More than ever," Carney says, "press offices are bracing themselves and have to resist being reactive to what's just coming over the transom – and so much more comes over so much more quickly that you get into that reactive mode very quickly." Before you know it, everyone is fuming – or shouting.

And then there is Twitter, which is now the premier driver of a news cycle that boils around the clock. In an erosion of traditional editorial neutrality, reporters take to Twitter not just to break stories but also to break half-stories, or rumors, or just retweet another reporter's tweet about a possible development. It's a kind of accelerating group-reporting that blurs traditional ideas of journalistic responsibility. "The intensity of the way stories break and become huge deals," Carney says, "and on the back end the way they burn out more quickly, too" – as the hive moves on to the next item of interest – "that's totally new."

As recently as the Reagan presidency, the White House was more or less completely in control of how news broke out of the Oval Office. Every presidential event was covered by the three networks – there were only three networks – and the handful of national papers. "You would reach almost every voter in the country," Carney says. "And that's not even remotely the case now. The only way you get that many eyeballs at one time is to have an enormous event, something like killing bin Laden."

Otherwise, people are increasingly getting information from an atomized, partisan, choose-your-news smorgasbord, where you're as likely to process the State of the Union through your brother-in-law's Facebook rants, the tweets of a few favorite reporters, and the top 17 GIFs of Nancy Pelosi blinking as curated by BuzzFeed. "That's why we do all the unorthodox stuff, putting him in unusual places," Carney says – like Obama's appearance on the Web series Between Two Ferns – "just to try to reach people where they are. Because where they're not is watching the news or reading the newspapers."

Even so, the aggregate day-to-day coverage of Obama usually still sucks. It's always an easy story to point out where the president has failed to deliver on his promises. Members of Congress from both parties are always happy to jump on the phone with a reporter and say the president isn't showing requisite leadership on issue X. Even on days when there is nothing big happening, there are still plenty of small things happening, and as a rule, they are bad: You find yourself, as I did one day, trying to find a way to explain to the country that we actually may have been putting too much fluoride in the water all these years.

Adding to the levels of mutual distrust and animus, Obama's communications team often resorts to hand-to-hand combat. The White House press staff, from day one, distributed authority more broadly than Bush's hands-off group, empowering more junior-level aides to help reporters as they saw fit, and when that didn't work, to fight with them – or "push back," as jargon has it. It didn't take long for the group to earn a reputation as overly quick to scream to get their way, or to exact a price for stories they saw as unfair. "If we're being honest, going back to the 2008 general election, there was a culture of bravado," says Tommy Vietor, who was one of my co-workers in the press office. "And it led to unnecessary shouting matches." Vietor concedes that the tactic – which he and I both employed liberally – was "immature." It also doesn't work particularly well, and as the years passed and the novelty of an Obama presidency leached away, the atmosphere of presumption and entitlement to good coverage has worn poorly.

In mid-July, the White House openly snubbed a BuzzFeed reporter, Chris Geidner, leaving him out of a conference call on a forthcoming executive order, apparently in reaction to Geidner's reporting of leaked material from a hush-hush strategy meeting with LGBT advocates. Two months before, the White House had levied similar punishment on The New York Times for skirting a restriction called an embargo (information provided in advance on the condition that it can't be reported before a certain set time). Times writers used their own sourcing to report the story early, and the next time an embargoed document came around, detailing one of the president's upcoming speeches, Times correspondents found themselves excluded from the party. The White House was reluctant to reopen these episodes, but an official suggests to me that rigorous policing of the embargo policy is the only way to be fair to outlets that play by the rules. Still, the reporter under pressure might wonder why there needs to be an embargo in the first place: It's a relic from the pre-Twitter age of information control, which is to say gratuitous and ultimately futile. "We bristle at efforts to rein us in and browbeat us," Peter Baker, one of the offending Times reporters, tells me. Baker says he sympathizes with a White House staff constantly under fire, but he's seen a decline in the health of the working relationship over the three administrations he's covered. "There is something lost," he says, a bit wistfully.

Even before Obama and his new politics burst onto the scene in 2008, we knew we lived in a country that is evenly but drastically split in its worldview. Now that the opposition can rewrite the news as it's happening, the two sides can essentially live in separate realities – which is perhaps what we've always wanted. It's becoming clear, though, that two casualties of this new order are efficacious, fact-based governing and an independent, fact-based press.

Amid the barrage of criticism, as Obama strains to respond to every new crisis, the White House's moves begin to look like guesses, or even shrugs. "When you don't know what you can plan for," Gibbs says, "then you're watching and reacting. And in this town, if you're just watching and reacting, it never ends well."

Beltway wags have long wondered how it is that Obama, such a gifted communicator, can't manage to tell the story of his own accomplishments. As an insider, that criticism always annoyed me, because it conveniently ignores the realities of how things have changed. As an outsider now, I see the point. If someone this talented and this appealing can't succeed in forging consensus – or even settle on a consistent narrative about what he's done – then what hope is there for the next president? We suddenly find ourselves living in a post-narrative world, and our politics, somehow, are going to have to adapt.

The White House isn't panicking. They know that in spite of everything, they have managed over six years to accomplish much of what Obama promised to do, even if accomplishing it helped speed the process of partisan breakdown. "Everything that you're saying about communications is not actually about communications per se as it is about the polarized nature of the country," the White House adviser says. "There's no clean shot" for communicating the president's message. "That's just where the country's going. And it's going to be worse for the next president," he adds, "hands down."

From The Archives Issue 1215: August 14, 2014

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