Obama and His Enemies
Rolling Stone has become quite the force in political journalism.
First there were the magazine’s revelations about Stanley McChrystal, which ended up costing the general his job. Now Obama has decided to use an interview with editor and founder Jann Wenner as a vehicle for administering a tongue-lashing to his base.
Here’s the scolding:
It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election…The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. ... People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up.
No doubt Obama sees himself akin to a coach at halftime when the team is down in the score, talking tough to the players to motivate them. But he is not a coach; he is actually the star player. And voters are not team members, they are observers who don’t like what they see.
…I’ve never seen a politician run an election with the message “Don’t be stupid, quit your bitching and vote for me.”… There’s a reason that strategy has never been employed: because it’s so insane to think that open berating would inspire a voter to action.
What’s more, Obama’s comments were an unforced error. He was not responding to anything Wenner was asking. Obama’s remarks were thrown in after the end of the interview, when he had already left the Oval Office and then felt inexplicably inspired to return to add them. It’s a bit like the last ski run of the day, when a person is tired and likely to fall and really should go back to the lodge, but instead decides to take “just one more.” It can lead to disaster.
Most of Wenner’s questions were set-ups, of the type Obama has grown accustomed to for most of his public life: “When did you realize that the Republicans had abandoned any real effort to work with you and create bipartisan policy?” “How do you feel about the fact that day after day, there's this really destructive attack on whatever you propose? Does that bother you?”
If a succession of softball questions like that are the sort of grilling Obama has come to expect from a free press, it might explain the depth of his antipathy to Fox News, and his inability to resist the opportunity to bash it -- an opportunity that Wenner afforded him when he asked Obama: “What do you think of Fox News? Do you think it's a good institution for America and for democracy?”
In a way, the question was an easy one. And had Obama stuck to the first sentence of his answer -- “Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press” -- he probably would have scored points on all sides.
Instead, Obama accused Fox of being a regrettable, destructive case of opinion journalism, a departure from an unspecified and narrow time when journalism had its objective “golden age”:
The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it's been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it's that Fox is very successful.
Never mind that Obama can’t say when this golden age was, and who its practitioners might have been. Never mind that he ignores the blatant liberal bias in an outlet such as MSNBC, which no doubt he thinks is constructive for America. And never mind that the prevailing opinion in public polls is that the media is biased in the liberal direction (see also this).
The quote about Fox is notable for another characteristic Obama attitude: his disdain for the profit motive and capitalism. No doubt Murdoch is concerned with Fox’s success. But is this some anomaly, some exception to the rule in broadcasting? Of course not. Has Obama never heard of ratings and the keen competition for them? Obama not only posits a golden age of journalistic objectivity, but an imaginary one of network self-sacrifice and lack of concern with its viewership or the profit motive.
It’s not at all unusual for presidents to have difficulties with the press. What is unusual is for a president to take on a single news outlet, accuse it of bias, and ignore the opposite bias in most of the other outlets, pretending that the news business itself has no generally capitalist aspect, and that the station that cares about its success is the mercenary exception rather than the rule.
This is part of Obama’s tendency to personalize the attack against those he sees as his media enemies, in the past criticizing Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity by name rather than ignoring them.
Richard Nixon had his enemies list, which included members of the liberal press. But he knew better than to publicize who was on it. Nixon left the media-bashing to his attack-dog vice president, Spiro Agnew. Even then, the public criticism was ordinarily kept both general and even somewhat humorous, such as calling the press “nattering nabobs of negativism” in a speech to the California Republican state convention in 1970, for example.
It is of special interest that Agnew’s speechwriter for the occasion, and the originator of the phrase, was none other than an opinion journalist himself, and one who wrote for the New York Times, no less: conservative columnist William Safire.
At this point, Obama would do well to hire a speechwriter with as light and deft a touch -- and to stick to the script.