White House's Use of Technology Has Old Media 'Filters' Worried

February 15th, 2011 3:52 PM

There are very few Americans who believe that the maintenance of the American republic literally depends on their continued relevance. Journalists comprise a large portion of that relatively small group.

So as technology has enabled public figures to circumvent traditional media, those journalists have raised the alarm that without the proper "filters" (them, of course) constitutional republicanism itself is at risk.

ABC News's Devin Dwyer reported on Tuesday (italics mine):

But while these innovative communications tools [used by the Obama White House] ostensibly offer greater transparency and openness, critics say they have come at a troublesome expense: less accountability of the administration by the independent, mainstream press.

Over the past few months, as White House cameras have been granted free reign behind the scenes, officials have blocked broadcast news outlets from events traditionally open to coverage and limited opportunities to publicly question the president himself.

Obama's recent signing of the historic New START treaty with Russia and his post-State of the Union cabinet meeting, for example, were both closed to reporters in a break with tradition. And during a recent question and answer session with the president and visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the White House imposed an unusual limit of just one question each from the U.S. and Canadian press corps.

"The administration has narrowed access by the mainstream media to an unprecedented extent," said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton, who has covered seven administrations. "Access here has shriveled."

The consequence of reduced access, from the perspective of traditional media, is that the president's statements cannot be vetted by reporters. But as was so clearly demonstrated in the run-up to the 2008 elections - and in post-mortems since then - journalists will only vet people they want to vet.

Obama was not scrutinized by the traditional media so fond of their own roles in preserving political accountability and transparency. From exhortations of Obama's demigod status to the maintenance of CNN's "Revered Wright-free zone," the press, on the whole, decided that it didn't feel like vetting Obama.

Dwyer quotes one media scholar:

"They're opening the door to kicking the press out of historic events, and opening the door to having a very filtered format for which they give the American public information that doesn't have any criticism allowed," said University of Minnesota journalism professor and political communication analyst Heather LaMarre.

But the press demonstrated its own willingness to filter out information damaging to then-candidate Obama. Reporters of course apply more scrutiny to the White House than the White House does, but to simply bestow the mantle of neutral arbiter upon the press that was so derelict in its duty as a political watchdog would be an exercise in willful blindness.

While the "filter" provided by traditional media has for so long been given the presumption of political neutrality and granted unique credibility accordingly, the White House's new media messaging must necessarily compete on equal footing with billions of other messages swirling around the Web. Another media scholar in Dwyer's piece made this comparison:

"If Nixon had announced he was going to start the 'Nixon channel' and said they were only going to put up stuff he approved of, people would have said, 'Oh my God, this is like Communist Russian state media,'" said David Perlmutter, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

(No word on whether Perlmutter considered the "Barack Obama's Plan for America" Dish Network channel Soviet-esque.)

That comparison would only have been accurate if a total of four websites were currently in existence. After all, a Nixon channel would only have had to compete with the networks and PBS. There is no comparing that dynamic with our current digital media environment.

By removing traditional media filters from the equation, the White House is forcing its messaging to compete on a far more level playing field. That doesn't make the information coming from the White House any better or more honest, but it can no longer be given a rubber stamp of legitimacy by a press that has routinely incorporated its own political preferences into its role as an information "filter."