Is President Obama incapable of dealing with journalists who question his policies? The White House press corps is becoming increasingly agitated with an administration that reacts particularly strongly to criticism, and even skepticism.
The White House has adopted a pugilistic attitude towards the press, lashing out at journalists who criticize the president, shutting others out, and adopting a deferential attitude towards the press corps that has some journalists reminiscing about the openness of -- gasp -- the George W. Bush presidency.
The Obama administration "came in with every reporter giving them the benefit of the doubt," one journalist told Politico's Josh Gersten and Patrick Gavin. "They’ve lost all that goodwill." It seems that the press corps's offense is questioning the administration's positions.
CNBC's Dennis Kneale weighed in on the channel's website today, where he called Obama a "bully." The president "gets pouty whenever anyone dares to disagree with him" Kneale claimed. "He seems to view dissension not as healthy public debate but as a suspicious, pernicious challenge to his omnipotence and popularity."
That is a problem for journalists, whose success can be measured in part by the degree of skepticism they apply to those in power. Though an effective press is one that is not dissuaded by a hostile administration, comity and transparency often go hand in hand -- the lack of the former makes the latter tougher.
To the extent Kneale's critique is accurate, President Obama looks a whole lot like Candidate Obama. He and his administration do their best to control the message by funneling information to select sources and hammering journalists and media outlets that paint the president or his policies in a less than appealing light.
As reported in Politico,
Among White House reporters, tales abound of an offhand criticism or passing claim low in an unremarkable story setting off an avalanche of hostile e-mail and voice mail messages.
“It’s not unusual to have shouting matches, or the email equivalent of that. It’s very, very aggressive behavior, taking issue with a thing you’ve written, an individual word, all sorts of things,” said one White House reporter.
“It’s a natural outgrowth of campaigning where control of the message is everything and where a very tight circle controls the flow of information,” the New Yorker’s Packer said. “I just think it is a mistake to transfer that model to governing. Governing is so much more complicated and is all about implementation—not just message.”
One of the most irritating practices of the Obama White House is when aides ignore inquiries or explicitly refuse to cooperate with an unwelcome story—only to come out with both guns blazing when it takes a skeptical view of their motives or success.
“You will give them ample opportunity on a story. They will then say, ‘We don’t have anything for you on this.’ Then, when you write an analytical graf that could be interpreted as implying a political motive by the White House, or something that makes them look like anything but geniuses, you will get a flurry of off the record angry e-mails after you publish,” one national reporter said. “That does no good. If you want to complain, engage!”
During the campaign, there were plenty of darker elements of the Obama candidacy that the press could have invesitaged. For the most part, journalists chose not to do so. But now that Obama is president, even a fawning press cannot paint his every policy as a resounding success.
So while journalists begin to weigh in on what Obama is doing, the president's thin skin begins to show. He apparently grew accustomed to a sycophantic journalistic establishment.
For its part, the White House claims that it only lashes out against reports that are objectively untrue.
Gibbs said the White House’s efforts to push back tend to focus on fixing factual mistakes before they take hold in the media.
“The way we live these days, something that’s wrong can whip around and become part of the conventional wisdom in only a matter of moments and it’s hard to take it, put a top on it and put in back into the box,” Gibbs said. “That’s the nature by which the business operates right now.…This isn’t unique in terms of us and it’s likely to be more true for the next administration.”
But if the White House's hyper-sensitive attitude to criticism were restricted simply to "factual mistakes," it would have no cause to broaden its criticism to include an entire news channel -- Fox News, perhaps the White House's meatiest target -- without discriminating between the various reporters there, or even between reporters and opinion commentators.
Rather than single out specific instances of misinformation supposedly aired on Fox News, the White House dispatched David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel to rhetorically negate the cable network's credentials as a news organization. Had "factual mistakes" been the extent of the White House's objections, it could simply have asked for corrections.
No, the White House's real problem seems to be that members of the press would challenge administration policies at all.