Barack Obama deserves kudos for his newly-announced policies on the Freedom of Information Act and other transparency-related issues. Of course, it will take some time for presidential directives to work their way down through the vast government bureaucracy, where they will encounter resistance due to habit, laziness, and limited resources. But Obama has clearly broken with the past — in the only way that makes any sense in the information age. The question now is: what are we, the people, going to do with all this information our government is making available?
But it’s interesting that, at least on the surface, Obama’s approach to the establishment media – the TV and radio networks, wire services, newspapers and magazines that still cover the White House – doesn’t differ all that much from George W. Bush’s. As in, their correspondents are not getting much access. They are tightly managed. The White House press office doesn’t say very much, and what it says isn’t very revealing. What’s more, it’s signaling that past press rituals will not necessarily be observed. The Obama team declined to give the New York Times a pre-inauguration interview. Yesterday, the White House didn’t even let press photographers in to get some shots of Obama working in the Oval Office, provoking an AP announcement that it would not distribute what amounted to “visual press releases.”
Bush and Cheney viewed themselves in a manichean struggle with the forces arrayed against them, a list that includes not jihadists but the federal bureaucracy, the Democratic Party, reality itself! — and the media. As Jay Rosen has pointed out, they attempted to “de-certify” the media by strangling its access to information and using a variety of alternative, propagandistic avenues to get its message across. This proved disastrous.
Like Bush, Obama appears to view the media agenda in fundamental conflict with his own. But now, the perceived difference isn’t ideological. It’s programmatic. Obama (correctly, I think) sees the press representing two things that are clear obstacles to his ambitious plans: official Washington and a trivia-obsessed media culture.
First, the official Washington view: There’s a certain, Broderesque way of doing things. Be centrist, bipartisan – especially if you’re a Democratic president. Listen to the conservative talking heads who dominate Sunday talk shows, who will advise you to be … conservative. This world, shaped by the rise of conservative media since the Reagan era, remains several steps behind where the country is, or is ready to be, on politics and policy.
Second, the media culture: The cable maw must be fed with transient panics. Feeding frenzies and micro-scandals dominate. They fuel the chat shows, opinion columns and blogs. These faux crises and dramas, which usually pass with little consequence, can knock a presidential agenda off-stride or even destroy it.
These phenomena reflect the growing insularity of the establishment press over the past generation. They are obstacles both to good journalism and to the kind of bold political reforms Obama is pursuing. He is right to be wary of them. But this doesn’t diminish the importance of openness. As a journalist and a citizen, I’d like to see more give-and-take between reporters and the president – and I expect we will see that. And I want insights on what’s happening in the West Wing and OEOB from experienced journalists. What we ultimately get depends not just on Obama’s willingness to engage, but on the media’s ability to break free of its own outmoded habits and prejudices.