Obama and the Media: The End of the Affair

It is not difficult to figure out why the press has fallen out of love. For starters, it is hard, indeed impossible, to ignore the incompetent Treasury Secretary, the pork-filled "stimulus plan" (with the ever-shifting number of promised jobs to be "saved"), the Special Olympics gaffe, the appointee troubles, the budget busting, the cheesy political stunts, the stock market dive, the rising unemployment, and the defections by Red state Democrats. The collective impact of all of these and other difficulties cannot be overlooked. Eventually, even the most sympathetic media must cover the real world.

Moreover, the Obama press operation rivals the worst days of Scott McClellan. Every day brings a new cringe-inducing encounter with Gibbs who dodges and stalls, evades and robotically repeats the White House talking points. His tactic of villifying specific media figures -- from Rush Limbaugh to Jim Cramer -- is wearing thin. It is no wonder that you now hear snickering in the background at the White House briefings.

The collective sentiment of the White House press corps seems to be, "Can you believe this guy?" Well, it is hard both to believe what he is saying -- and to understand why a team as expert as this one at managing the media on the campaign trail can't accomplish simple tasks like putting together a timeline on the AIG bonuses or compiling a list of ethics waivers.

And, of course, there is no single Republican opponent to harass. Unlike a presidential campaign, where at least half the game is turning the tables on the other guy, the White House now suffers from the lack of a single foe. Yes, they tried to cast Rush Limbaugh in the role, but that petered out after a few days. When you have all the power and all the responsibility it is not quite so easy to cast attention and blame elsewhere. There isn't any other target toward which they readily can point the press. Really the new administration is the only story to cover right now.

But a key factor in Obama's falling out with the media is the expectations problem. He rode into office as the embodiment of them -- an idealized version of the Washington-New York elite opinion makers. Sophisticated and worldly, cool and unflappable, he was their guy. They assumed that since he was smart, articulate, and read all the right books and magazines (just like them!) he would be just swell at his job. After all, he was in many ways the perfect candidate who flicked mere mortal politicians like Hillary Clinton and John McCain out of his way without breaking a sweat.

Then it turns out he can't find competent help, doesn't take seriously his promises to root out earmarks or cut the deficit, hires a load of lobbyists and tax cheats, and seems about as transparent and bipartisan as his predecessor (i.e., not at all). In other words, he's just like all the rest! The MSM is wounded. No wonder they want out of the co-dependent relationship.

And that is part of it too. Having put their professional respect and independence in a lock box for a couple of years, it does seem time for the mainstream media to get back to the job of doing their job. That is not to say the media treatment of this president remotely resembles that of most Republicans. It is a full time exercise imagining just how outraged the press would be if George W. Bush had pulled some of this stuff. (Conservative pundits constant refrain these days is: "Can you imagine if Bush did X?") Actually, Bush would not have had the nerve to sign a bill with nearly 9000 earmarks and then have an anti-earmark press conference the next day, or sign a $787 billion budget and have a fiscal responsibility summit the next week. Still, the mainstream media is slowly, ever so slowly, adopting a more critical stance toward the administration.

Not only is it about time they did so, but it is essential for the mainstream media's own survival in a world of alternative media outlets. If they don't cover the administration with some degree of accuracy, others, including candidly liberal outlets, will. (Huffington Post, for example, seems to have been out ahead of the New York Times in adopting a more critical stance toward the administration.)

And most of all, it is essential to the functioning of a democratic society to have a competent, independent press. Perhaps we're finally going to get one. That would be change many Americans could believe in.