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The Message Is the Message

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“Time and again, our values have been our best national-security asset,” Obama said in the first five minutes of his appearance at the National Archives. “It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s armed forces than from their own government.” By the time he’d finished speaking, he’d used the word moral twice, principle ten times, and value fifteen. “We must leave these [torture] methods where they belong—in the past,” he said. “They are not who we are. And they are not America.”

A temperate July afternoon, with a slightly more intemperate press corps. Chip Reid, the White House correspondent for CBS News, is quizzing Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, about a health-care event the administration has arranged in Virginia. Why, he wants to know, is the administration calling this event a “town hall” when it has hand-picked all of the participants and questions? At first the exchange looks as if it’ll last only a few seconds. Then Helen Thomas, the woman with the single-longest institutional memory in the press corps, joins in.

THOMAS: It’s a pattern.
GIBBS: What’s a pattern?
THOMAS: It’s a pattern of controlling the press.

Though the president may be liberal with his media appearances, his relationship with the traditional White House press corps is complicated. The Obama administration runs a very disciplined press operation. Its aides almost never leak, unless it’s deliberate. It’s highly selective about access (during the transition, the New York Times White House team didn’t get the usual sit-down interview). It makes generous use of polls (every Wednesday night, a group meets for dinner at the home of David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, to discuss politics and message). Not once has Obama shown himself to be psychologically beholden to the White House press corps. If anything, it’s the other way around, a favorite Obama punch line: “A few nights ago, I was up tossing and turning trying to figure out exactly what to say,” he recently said at a dinner for television and radio correspondents. “Finally, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.”

In Reagan’s day, it would have been heresy to move so rapidly. “We didn’t even understand what he was doing at first. Why is he stepping on his message?”

Obama, in fact, lives in a moment when he can finally do what his modern predecessors only dreamed of: go directly over the heads of the mainstream press. The White House Flickr stream is a good example. Since the beginning of his presidency, the Obama press office has uploaded 983 pictures onto the site. Each is as perfectly composed as an old cover of Life magazine, and each competes with, if not trumps, a photograph taken during a routine photo op, which probably explains why the administration denied outside photographers access to the Oval Office on the president’s first day in office and released its own pictures instead. Why leave such an important image to chance if it’s something you can control? (Brad and Angelina, incidentally, did the same thing when their first child was born, knowing that their own polished photos of Shiloh would preempt a paparazzi shot.) The White House’s “prepackaged” events, as Helen Thomas calls them, are another case in point. Every modern administration has attempted its own version of those health-care town halls. But if the mainstream press refused to cover them, the events were of little value. Not so in the age of YouTube.

Thomas and Reid were right about the health-care event. It was designed to control the press. Had it been the only event Obama participated in, it would have been appalling. But Obama knows full well that a dinky town hall on YouTube doesn’t get nearly as many viewers as a town hall on prime-time. So he does both. Just the week before that Virginia event, Obama did a health-care town hall on ABC. The day before the ABC event, he gave a six-minute response to a health-care question … from the White House press corps, at a routine press conference. Obama, in fact, has by this point given more interviews than any modern president.

The president has also made a point of courting certain influential members of the old media: He talked to David Leonhardt of the New York Times for a long magazine piece about the economy; he dined with conservative columnists (George Will, David Brooks, Bill Kristol) and had a morning meeting with those closer to his own political kind (Maureen Dowd, E. J. Dionne Jr., Rachel Maddow). And his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has spent a lot of time keeping the traditional press corps happy. If you scan the morning papers, you’ll find he’s managed to give most prominent White House reporters some on-the-record quote about whatever they were writing, suggesting he’s said even more off the record. He gossips with them, sees them occasionally for off-the-record dinners. (He’s the type old-school reporters fetishize: loquacious, intense, so profane he’d embarrass a toilet.) Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, remarked in a recent story that “perhaps no White House chief of staff in modern history has worked the media as aggressively and relentlessly as Emanuel.” For people in a dying industry, so much attention from a president’s chief of staff is very flattering.


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