Nothing throws the Washington press corps into a bigger tizzy than being ignored.
Being dissed is something the press corps can live with—in fact, they love being dissed. In the early 1970s, for example, every Washington journalist with a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemy list treated the affront as money in the bank. The unlisted felt like failures.
Barack Obama’s brain trust understands the insecurities of the press. How could they not? The campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, was a star political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. But rather than feeding and caring for the press, the Obama campaign worked the media’s insecurities to their man’s advantage, largely freezing reporters out in a successful effort to control his message. In what can be described only as a psy-ops coup, the Obama campaign denied the Washington Post editorial board an interview with their candidate. And of that slight they were proud. As the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich wrote in December, the campaign bragged about it. “You could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and understand that people aren’t reading the Washington Post,” incoming Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs told Leibovich.
So having won the election without wooing the press, what is Obama’s new press strategy?
Courtship! On Tuesday night, Obama dined at George F. Will’s house with name-brand conservatives Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, and Larry Kudlow. The liberal commentariat got their audience the next day, when Obama met with Eugene Robinson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, E.J. Dionne, and others at his transition headquarters. As I write, he’s touring the Washington Post, where he was interviewed by the paper’s editorial board and its White House team.
The new romance goes only so far. He’s still avoided the “traditional” pre-inauguration interview with the New York Times, as Politico’s Michael Calderone reported yesterday. Calderone catalogs the four substantive interviews Obama has given the Times over the last 18 months or so and notes the welter of miniature press conferences Obama has given to make transition announcements. What seems to irritate the Times the most is the president-elect’s dismissal of the order of things, which mandates a sit-down session with reporters.
Perhaps the Times should count its blessings. As of late, when Obama does speak, as he did on Dec. 7 on Meet the Press, Dec. 28 on 60 Minutes, and Jan. 11 on This Week With George Stephanopoulos, he tends not to say much. The closest Obama came to giving Stephanopoulos any news was when he answered a question about investigating torture and warrantless wiretapping under the Bush administration. Obama said, “We have not made final decisions.”
As John Dickerson wrote last month in Slate, the Bush administration regarded the Clinton administration image-handlers as “day traders,” constantly smuggling themselves into the news action, whereas the Bushies thought of themselves as “long-term investors,” in former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett’s words. Of course, both approaches imagine the media—as opposed to the press corps—as a giant pipe organ that can be played to pacify the citizenry. And neither the day-trader approach nor the long-term approach requires a presidential administration to speak to the Washington press corps.
In a November column, I predicted that despite Obama’s skill and luck at managing the press, a war between the two was inevitable. Even though few of my predictions ever come true, I’m willing to double down on that original prophecy. One reason Obama continues to float above the press is that he hasn’t had to decide anything yet besides who will fill his Cabinet and senior-staff positions. Obama is so committed to keeping his options open that he’s yet to decide between a Portuguese water dog and a Labradoodle for his daughters.
One of Obama’s most effective press dodges has been to say that there can be only “one president at a time,” which he did twice in one press conference a few days after his November victory—first in discussing the economy and later when asked about Iran. On Dec. 1, he used the phrase again when asked about the Mumbai butchery. In late December, chief strategist David Axelrod invoked it for him on Face the Nation while talking about Gaza.
This “one president” shtick is entirely situational—it didn’t prevent Obama from broadcasting his own stimulus plan on Jan. 8, 12 days before Bush was to leave the White House. Perhaps Obama’s media outreach this week marks his premature segue into the Oval Office.
In my previous column, I drew on veteran reporter James Deakin’s wise 1984 memoir Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth (1984) to wager that Obama and the press would soon start rumbling. As Deakin observed, in the press corps’s eyes, the president can’t win for losing. He’s either moving too quickly on the economy or too slowly. He’s either coddling hostile nations or baiting them. He’s making his predecessors’ mistakes. He’s ignoring his campaign promises. He’s too rigid. He waffles too much.
As our financial crackup widens, the auto industry goes under, and 15 percent unemployment follows, the nation will experience economic pain that aches, then burns, then stings, and finally throbs. Because every political issue connects at some level to economics, Obama will become the focal point of the crisis and the target of the media’s critical cameras and hostile pens. Will he wish he’d put some goodwill in the bank? Either way, it will be war as you’ve never seen before. Grab a hat and a helmet.
Deakin, who wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for many years, was on Nixon’s enemies list. He died in 2007. Marquis Childs, Richard Dudman, and James Millstone, also of the Post-Dispatch, were on the list, too. When I hyped Deakin’s out-of-print book in November, you could buy it from Amazon for $.01 plus $3.99 handling. Today Amazon is selling it for $7.90 plus $3.99 handling. Who says Press Box doesn’t get results? My current out-of-print penny title from Amazon is If No News, Send Rumors: Anecdotes of American Journalism by Stephen Bates. Send the price of your favorite out of print press titles to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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