Earlier this week, President Barack Obama castigated the press (again) not only for trafficking in the patently "false equivalence" of "he said/she said" journalism and failing "to probe and to question and to dig deeper" but for abetting the rise of (an unnamed) Donald Trump and creating "the current climate" of political vitriol.
The proper response to this is: Are fucking kidding me? Or, as Politico's Jack Shafer wrote, "Spare me your hypocritical journalism lecture, Mr. President." In fact, Obama has not just been hostile to the way he says wants the press to operate, he's sicced more legal dogs on reporters than any wary property owner ever sicced on bill collectors. From Shafer summary of some of the president's actions:
"Obama hates the press," New York Times national security reporter James Risen said not long ago, "and he hates leaks." AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee has decried the "day-to-day intimidation of sources" by the Obama administration, judging it worse than the Bush administration on that score. And in a 2013 piece, POLITICO's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen documented Obama's mastery of "limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House."…
Obama holds infrequent news conferences, and he wastes reporters' time by refraining from answering questions with any candor. He claims to helm "the most transparent administration in history," while bending government policies and practices toward secrecy.
All of that (and more) is bad enough, writes Shafer, but things get positively unbearable when the president layers on all the vapid, banal, Hallmark greeting-card level praise of the press:
What makes Obama's speech so unstomachable is the way he praises reporters at an award ceremony by calling their work "indispensable," "incredible," "worth honoring" and essential to democracy while simultaneously blocking honest press queries with all the formidable energies of his office.
Ironically enough, the president was speaking at the award ceremony for the Toner Prize, given annually by Syracuse University to honor "the best national or local political reporting in any medium or on any platform." This year's recipient is Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, a watchdog group, Shafer notes, that has reported that at
the same time the Obama administration has been paying lip service to protecting whistleblowers, it has pursued national security leaks to the press with a vehemence unmatched by any previous administration, using the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who leak to journalists more times than all previous administrations combined.
I've been a working journalist basically my entire professional life. I respect the field but don't think it warrants the often-overwrought mythic vision presented by Hollywood (see Spotlight for a recent, semi-hagiographic example) and journalists themselves. Obama's speech isn't simply hypocritical and diversionary (though it is both those things). By stroking the press's collective ego, he allows us both to pump up our significance in self-flattering ways that have little connection to reality or the news we're supposed to cover. Hence, The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof's genuinely awful Sunday column, titled, "My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump."
Screw you, buddy, I didn't—and neither did anyone at Reason, for that matter. Nor did we help "make" George W. Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Saddam Hussein. It's interesting that folks at places such as The Times, which never fails to put itself in a different league when it comes to its reputation, start trading in collective responsibility the minute things go south. The fact is, there in no single media and to talk about the tens of thousands (if not more) of news-gathering and free-expression-enabling outlets and platforms under such a term conceals more than it clarifies.
And it also smudges a fact that many reporters or newsgatherers or journalists or whatever you want to call us have never pushed back against Barack Obama because they have been in the tank for him. That is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Toner lecture delivered by Obama: The very people he excoriates—and that he had thrown in jail on occasion and threatened with all sort of legal and other actions—lap it all up with a spoon.
Then there's what Reason TV's Todd Krainin has called the "reality show presidency" of Barack Obama. Forget Donald Trump's roots in The Apprentice. On top of all his other sins against transparency and freedom of the press, there's this:
"The White House has effectively become a broadcast company," says Michael Shaw, publisher of Bagnewsnotes.com, a site dedicated to the analysis of news images. Shaw explains how strategically composed photos, taken by official White House photographers, travel from social media sites that are controlled by the administration to the front pages of newspapers around the world.
The press publishes the official White House photographs because independent photographers and videographers are increasingly barred from covering the president. This practice has diminished the power of the independent media as an exclusive distribution channel while empowering official photographers such as Pete Souza, who are on the presidential payroll.
And so, says Shaw, the public has been fed a steady diet of whatever kind of president the news cycle demands. When conspiracy theorists questioned Obama's patriotism, we saw images of Obama the American everyman. To celebrate the anniversary of Rosa Parks' 1955 refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we saw Obama reenact her famous image. Time and again, we see Obama striking poses out of John F. Kennedy's repertoire. The official White House photographers have created a presidential identity for every conceivable occasion — as long as the image is flattering, and almost always, larger than life.
Watch Krainin's video to get a full sense of how Obama is not dissembling to reporters or threatening them and playing fast and loose with them. He's actually tightly controlling what images are allowed to be published of him and carefully staging photo-ops and other fake press events in ways that erase their own falsity.