Obama and the Media: Old Policy Resurfacing

When Amory Gutierrez from the Pleasanton Weekly wanted to do a puff piece on the Obamas’ helicopter, “Marine One,” the White House put out the welcome mat. After all, Pleasanton is a very upscale bedroom community attached to Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Democrats outnumber Republicans there more than two to one. Gutierrez, however, did not keep to the anticipated script.  Her piece gushed over the helicopter flown by a Marine crew, but then went on to repeat what the Marines had told her.  In nearly four years of flying the Obamas, Michelle Obama had never so much as verbally acknowledged the crew’s existence.

Intentional or not, the one line in the otherwise celebratory piece made the first lady look aloof and disdainful of the military -- or as some people put it, just plain snooty.  The White House moved decisively into damage-control mode.

Now, one might see this move as more than a bit of an overreaction. After all, the Pleasanton Weekly is not exactly the Washington Post. But, in many circles, Michelle Obama has a major image problem.  There is her statement that she was not proud of her country that seems continually to follow her. Then, there were the vacations that were roundly criticized for masquerading as state visits. Consequently, this small weekly in an overwhelmingly Democratic district was being pressured to remove the line that further tarnished the first lady’s image.

Did the Marines not say this? Was the line inaccurate? Gina Channell-Allen, the president of the Pleasanton Weekly, never contested the veracity of the line. In justifying her yielding to the “request” from the White House to have it removed, she made an argument so torturous as to remind us that the First Amendment is too important to be left to journalists to defend.

Channell-Allen told readers that she had been asked by the White House to take out something that compromised the president’s security, and while she was doing this, taking out the other line was no big deal. In fact, Channell-Allen conflated the two requests as if one were part of the other. Here is how she put it: “They also mentioned taking out a line that could be misconstrued about the first lady. It wasn’t going to change lives or destroy administrations by leaving it in or taking it out. When you’ve just been asked to do something to keep the president of the United States from harm, taking a line out about something like that is not a question.  Even journalists have to choose our battles.”

Asking the Office of the First Lady for a comment on why it was necessary to pressure a small weekly newspaper to edit its story, The Daily Caller received an email from Michelle Obama’s press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, that denied the office knew of the story or ever had interacted with the paper.

At the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle, no member of the infamous right-wing conspiracy, came in for similar treatment. On April 20, 2011, Obama came to San Francisco for a fund-raiser at the St. Regis Hotel, which was interrupted by local activist, Naomi Pitcairn, who had paid $76,000 to attend, so that she and a group of fellow progressives could spontaneously serenade the president with a mocking ditty on behalf of Wikileaks source Private Bradley Manning.

The press attending the event had been restricted to pencil and paper, no cameras, no recorders.  Seeing the protest serenade as news in the making, Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci whipped out her smart phone and captured a stunned president being harassed by his ideological base.

After filing her pool report, Marinucci uploaded a video of the a capella  protest to S. F. Gate, the Chronicle’s web site. A senior reporter with impeccable liberal credentials, Marinucci found that she was not immune to the wrath of the White House.  The White House communications office  issued a heated warning that Marinucci was banned from all future presidential events and that if the Chronicle went public with the story of her banishment, the entire Hearst chain, of which the Chronicle is part, would find all its reporters banned.

The White House seemed to fail to comprehend that the San Francisco Chronicle is not a community weekly out in the East Bay.  Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Phil Bronstein, the Chronicle’s editor-at-large, realized that the threat to freedom of the press was bigger than the threat to the newspaper and put the story up on the S.F. Gate website.

The White House issued a denial, which immediately reminded one of the British quip not to believe anything government does until they officially deny it. Bronstein followed up by repeating Editor Ward Bushee’s remark calling the White House press office a bunch of liars.

So, before Lanny Davis, longtime adviser to Bill Clinton, was threatened by the Obama White House because of columns he had written for the Washington Times, and before the imbroglio with Bob Woodward hit the news, the White House had been using these tactics of threatening to cut off access for those who don’t toe the party line.

The mainstream media did not carry the story about the Pleasanton Weekly or about the San Francisco Chronicle; the blogs did. And even after the Davis and Woodward conflicts with the White House, the MSM still fails to underscore the real threat. This is about neither conflict nor personalities. It is about a responsible free media in a democratic society escaping the clutches of the authoritarian mindset: one that says the truth is what the leader says it is on any given day. Obama believes if he says the sequester was caused by the Republicans (it originated with the White House) and will result in economic collapse, that is the truth of the moment and the media need to repeat it. For those, like Bob Woodward, who don’t, there will be regrets.