It’s been over a year and a half since Obama left office, but it still bothers me hearing him speak. Between his trying to take credit for the Trump economy and his claim that he, unlike Trump, didn’t “threaten the freedom of the press,” it’s hard not to get angry when he speaks because virtually everything he says is a lie. His trying to take credit for Trump’s economy was pathetic, but his claim that he was not an enemy of the free press deserves to be called out.
“It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because — they say things or publish stories we don’t like,” Obama said during his speech at the University of Illinois. “I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them ‘enemies of the people.’” Obama certainly had his issues with Fox News. Newsweek actually described the conflict between them as “a war.”
But, Obama’s war with the media wasn’t limited to Fox News. Obama’s treatment of the media as a whole was so bad that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan criticized the Obama administration in 2013 for its “unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.” David E. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, said of the Obama administration in 2013, “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.” According to a report on press freedoms by the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists, “In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press.”
It’s hard to imagine, given how positive the media was toward Obama, that his administration could be so antagonistic toward them. But the evidence that Obama was an enemy of the free press is astounding. The left-leaning media today may be calling Trump’s attacks on the media unprecedented, but they pale in comparison to what happened during the Obama years. Here are five examples of Obama’s attacks on the free press.
5. Manipulating media coverage
While media was generally very positive toward Obama, he wasn’t willing to risk losing control in an interview while he was running for reelection should a journalist actually try to ask a tough question. To solve this problem, Obama went to local media outlets to do interviews.
Why does this matter? Well, the reason is control. National media outlets would not be so open to ground rules for interviews. But local media outlets were another story. Local news stations don’t often get the opportunity to interview the president of the United States and are far more willing to agree to ground rules, such as establishing what topics can be discussed or what questions can’t be asked.
Obama was clearly more comfortable when he could dictate the terms of an interview. By August 2012, Obama had done fifty-eight local media interviews, but only eight national media interviews.
4. Proposed government monitors in newsrooms
The Constitution protects freedom of the press because a free press is a check on the power of our elected leaders. Obama didn’t want this check, not on his watch, and made many efforts to rein it in. Early in his second term, Obama’s FCC proposed a new program that would have put FCC agents in media newsrooms “to determine how stories were selected, whether there was bias in reporting,” and whether “critical information needs” were being met. These monitors would be placed not only in broadcast newsrooms, but also print media outlets that the FCC had no regulatory authority over. Because the FCC controls licensing of broadcast media, these monitors would have been effective intimidation tools… a constant reminder to the media that if the government didn’t like what you were saying, your license to broadcast could be revoked.
Who knows what would have happened had it not been for FCC commissioner Ajit Pai (now chairman under Trump), who exposed the existence of the proposed program in 2014, causing outrage and the eventual scrapping of the program.
3. Threatening journalists for negative coverage
After trying to blame Republicans for so-called sequestration budget “cuts,” Obama was less than thrilled when journalist Bob Woodward wrote both in his book, The Price of Politics, and in an early 2013 opinion piece in The Washington Post that automatic spending cuts had been proposed by the White House and personally approved and signed into law by Obama. Less than a week after the piece ran, Woodward revealed that a senior White House official warned him he would “regret” calling Obama out for his role in the sequester. After Woodward revealed his experience, other journalists came forward with similar stories.
Ron Fournier, the former editor-in-chief of National Journal, said of the Obama administration: “I received several emails and telephone calls from this White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Woodward called a veiled threat.” Lanny Davis, Bill Clinton’s longtime advisor and now lawyer to Michael Cohen, also came forward with claims he had received similar threats for unflattering pieces he wrote about Obama in the Washington Times. Liberal journalist Jonathan Alter said he’d been subjected to abusive treatment from the Obama administration for writing something they didn’t like. “There is a kind of threatening tone that, from time to time — not all the time — comes out of these guys,” he said. A young female reporter was called crude names in an email for merely asking important questions of an Obama cabinet secretary.
2. Spying on the media
If threatening journalists for asking tough questions and writing unflattering articles isn’t bad enough, all I can say is that it gets worse. The Obama administration actually spied on the media. Less than six months into Obama’s second term we learned that his Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records of AP reporters and editors. What was the Obama administration after? They wouldn’t say, but Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of the Associated Press, had an idea:
These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.
Similarly, the Justice Department secretly obtained then-Fox News reporter James Rosen’s phone records, tracked his movements, and read his emails while investigating possible leaks of classified information to Rosen for an article on North Korea’s nuclear program. One consequence of this Obama administration spying was that longtime sources stopped talking to the Associated Press and other news organizations.
1. Trying to jail journalists and whistleblowers
For all of Donald Trump’s mean words and use of the term “fake news,” I think we can all agree that such things aren’t nearly as bad as threatening and spying on journalists, right? Do you still think Barack Obama was an advocate of the free press? What if I told you he actually tried to put journalists in jail… for doing their jobs! The aforementioned James Rosen, who was subjected to Obama administration spying, was also threatened with jail time when the Obama Justice Department labeled him a “co-conspirator” with one of his sources who was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking the information to Rosen. Another journalist, James Risen of the New York Times, was similarly treated as a co-conspirator with a government source indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. Risen was subpoenaed, and originally compelled to testify against one of his sources.
The Obama administration used the Espionage Act six times in eight years to go after government sources, more than double the number of all previous administrations combined. Risen would later describe the Obama administration as “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive director of the Washington Post, said “the administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”