By Austin Cannon
Yesterday morning at The Washington Center we heard from Steve Thomma, the White House correspondent from McClatchy Newspapers. Among other things, he talked about the sheer difficulty of trying to cover the Obama White House.
Thomma has fallen victim to the age of social media. The Obama administration relies on releasing some information via social media instead of giving it directly to reporters. Thomma also works for a newspaper, which he said is last on the administration’s list of priorities (certain websites like The Huffington Post are at the top of the list, followed by television networks, then more websites and finally newspapers).
At his end-of-2014 press conference, the president took only eight questions. That’s a minuscule number after Thomma asserted that John F. Kennedy would sometimes take five times that many.
But most alarmingly, Thomma noted an extreme lack of transparency from the administration. There is little or no media access inside the White House, even though it disputes that claim. And journalists are fed up with it.
On The Huffington Post, Associated Press reporter Nancy Benac addressed the administration’s determination to control its own message and the consequences it has on the White House press.
At the same time, it is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn’t have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors. It’s raising new questions about what’s lost when the White House tries to make an end run around the media, functioning, in effect, as its own news agency.
What I picture is something like this scene from HBO’s The Newsroom. Though hopefully not as extreme.
There have been two press secretaries under President Obama: Jay Carney, who resigned and got a job at CNN, and Josh Earnest. Carney received most of the pushback before he left, including when he got into it with the White House press corps. Earnest hasn’t been much, if any, better. He too had a disagreement with reporters when only pool photographers were allowed access to Obama’s meeting with Apollo 11 astronauts. Lesson: We need more C.J. Cregg in this world.
Then we get to Obama’s use of the Espionage Act, the law that allows the government to prosecute anyone who tries to disrupt the United States’ national security operations. Since 1945, the government has pursued charges under the Act 11 times. Seven of those have been conducted during Obama’s presidency. That means the administration is going after officials that leak classified information to reporters like never before, putting those journalists in even more of a bind. Whistle-blowers are sometimes necessary when a reporter is exposing something that an administration wants to keep secret. But who is going to blow the whistle when there’s the threat of getting thrown in jail? The Obama administration is sending a clear message: Either don’t blow the whistle, or prepare to be prosecuted.
USA Today‘s Susan Page moderated yesterday’s discussion with Thomma and The Hill’s Bob Cusack, and she shares the opinion of much of the media with an added twist: The White House is not only secretive, but it’s dangerous to journalists, too. Who wants to be named as a possible coconspirator under the Espionage Act? No one does. The Obama crackdown affects how and what journalists report to the public. Sure, Obama is afraid of bad press, but, honestly, he’s president of the United States and that comes with the job. Does he just possess a general disdain for the press? Maybe. All I know is it’s sure not easy working in that press room.