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Obama and the Media: Trouble in Paradise

No more candy, flowers, and long walks on the beach for the press and the president.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

August 28, 2009 - 12:18 am

Many have remarked upon the growing rift between the former sweethearts.

No, not Gov. Mark Sanford and his Argentine soul mate. It’s the president and the mainstream media. Those soul mates are at odds — squabbling in public and tossing about recriminations. What had been a match made in heaven has turned sour, and it’s not clear they can ever go back to the way things were during their long and intense courtship.

Chris Stirewalt explains:

Obama was the hottest news story of their generation. Rather than covering the long-shot freshman senator who would be crushed in February, Obama campaign reporters experienced the reflected glory of being along for a historic journey. There was plenty of motivation to keep that journey going.

Conversely, Obama making a hash out of health care provides plenty of good copy for the White House press corps. And because Obama fatigue has set in with the reading and viewing public, skeptical stories match the national mood.

Some are still in the tank for Obama. But many liberal reporters think the president is blowing the left’s big chance.

There is a large element of truth to this. The frustration, especially from the left punditocracy, is palpable. Eugene Robinson frets. Paul Krugman fumes. He’s compromising too much or not fighting hard enough, whine others. The theme is the same: Obama is messing up, the Republicans have duped the unwashed masses, and if Obama doesn’t shape up fast the dream of nationalized health care — and more importantly, of liberal dominance — is going to go up in flames.

So a large element of the Obama-press rift is attributable to disappointment and frustration. The media is not simply covering Obama’s sinking ship of state, they are panicking about it.

But there are other factors at work. For starters, Obama isn’t very nice to the media. It may sound petty, but his obvious and frequent contempt for what they do must be irksome to reporters who fancy themselves to be indispensable elements in the Obama revolution. He spits his disdain for the “24-hour news cycle.” The press is told to buzz off — there is no news to be had on his Martha’s Vineyard vacation (before the eye-popping decision to name a special prosecutor to go after CIA operatives). And for all the promises to be “transparent,” this White House, and Robert Gibbs specifically, seems to be one of the least forthcoming in recent memory.

In short, the Obama team has shown the media little respect — and the press corps has begun to bristle at the high-handed treatment.

There is also the boredom factor. Obama made the cardinal error of overexposing himself. It has been hard to avoid him in the nonstop flurry of press conferences, sporting event appearances, and interviews. After awhile the excitement wanes and what was a thrill for even the most intoxicated members of the media (he’s asking me a question!) becomes humdrum and dull. Especially when the president relies on the same strawman arguments and platitudes and there just isn’t much new or exciting for the press to relate.

In addition, Obama’s public standing has hit the skids. His polling trends are all one way and his aura of political ascendancy is crumbling. Polling data has come to occupy an ever-increasing share of political coverage and this presidency is no exception. The mainstream press, which made a fetish — incorrectly it seems — over his high standing, is now equally engaged with the new survey data. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that the numbers impact the coverage, tempering the enthusiasm for a president who can no longer be advertised, even by the most sympathetic members of the press, as the dreamiest ever.

Now we shouldn’t get carried away with the mainstream media’s newly found independence. The coverage of this administration is less hostile than anything George W. Bush received. The mainstream media trumpets many of the White House’s themes (e.g., the Republicans are obstructionist) and still ignores or minimizes bad news (Where’s coverage of the Black Panther case? Why no outrage over White House efforts to pressure the military over troop levels in Afghanistan?). But the fawning is less frequent and the criticism greater than in the early days of the new administration. Certainly the White House’s irritation has increased as its relationship with the no-longer-so-entranced media frays.

The question remains whether the flame can be rekindled or whether the Obama-media relationship is now assuming a more “normal” footing akin to that which other presidents have experienced. Much of the media invested its credibility, sacrificed its professional independence, and frittered away what remained of its journalistic reputation in helping to hawk candidate Obama.

The desire to help him succeed, and to defy critics who accused the press of shilling for the president, shouldn’t be minimized. So don’t be surprised if the lovers reconcile. Both have much at stake in keeping the embers burning.

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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