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No love lost between Obama and political reporters

Tensions between Obama and journalists who cover him have recently boiled over, according to several reports. FRANCE 24 interviewed some of those correspondents for further insight into a relationship fraught with frustration.


At the annual White House Correspondents dinner in 2009, US President Barack Obama looked out at the reporters before him and deadpanned: “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me”.

The joke reflected a common belief in Washington and beyond that the press is enamored of Obama (a notion often used by the president’s conservative critics to explain his election victories and relatively robust favourability ratings).

But according to a story published on prominent US news site POLITICO on February 18, those who cover Obama most closely don’t care much for him, and the feeling is mutual.

The article features exclusive interviews with top White House press corps members (correspondents typically stationed at the White House or traveling with the president to report on as much of his public and private life as they can), who vigorously contest Obama’s claim of heading “the most transparent administration in history”.

One reporter quoted, ABC’s Ann Compton, called the president’s lack of “availability” to journalists “a disgrace”.

Indeed, the POLITICO story portrays a press-wary president who meticulously crafts his own public image, bypassing journalists as much as possible and relying on new media to reach out to Americans directly.

“This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House…has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly,” the article reads.

‘Not interested in making reporters happy’

The president’s relationship with some of the reporters who follow him got off to a rocky start before he even moved into the White House in 2009, when he denied The New York Times’ correspondents their traditional pre-inaugural sit-down.

Since then, the president has continued to dodge some of the most seasoned White House reporters, including those from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times, meanwhile, has not been granted a substantial face-to-face interview with Obama since 2010.

Stephen Hess, an expert on government and media at The Brookings Institute and author of several books on the presidency and the press, confirmed that along with Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, “Obama is [the president] least interested in making reporters happy.”

No one can accuse Obama of avoiding interviews; he gave 674 in his first term, while predecessor George W. Bush gave 217. But the interviews Obama has chosen to sit for have often been in “friendlier” settings, as on popular TV talk show “The View”, or with journalists he considers less dogged in their questioning, like Steve Croft of news programme “60 Minutes”.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker, a White House correspondent under Clinton, Bush and Obama, conceded that “there are always issues between the president and the White House press corps”. But, he added, “there are legitimate and genuine frustrations” with Obama in particular.

“[Obama] is temperamentally less gregarious and outgoing than other presidents,” Baker told FRANCE 24. “But he’s also harder to cover, because he doesn’t take questions day in and day out.”

Those more intimate, impromptu exchanges, in which the president takes questions from reporters on any number of issues, are “traditionally the bread and butter of covering the White House”, Baker explained. “We don’t get a chance to do that anymore, so we don’t hear his answers on the latest developments, whether it’s fiscal issues or Benghazi.”

Instead, correspondents are forced to rely on briefings with the president’s press secretary, and more rarely the president himself, which tend to be highly controlled. “No press corps likes to be spoon-fed information,” Baker said.

‘Unpleasant back-and-forth with White House’

The White House correspondents’ frustration with Obama came to a boil last weekend, when they were blocked from the president’s golf date with Tiger Woods; traditionally, reporters have been allowed to question the president at the beginning and end of such outings.

In a statement on Sunday, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, Ed Henry of Fox News, relayed many reporters’ complaints “about having absolutely no access to the President of the United States this entire weekend”.

Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, defended the White House’s “effort…to make sure that the president is being questioned by reporters”, though he noted that he was “sympathetic…to the desire for more and more access”.

That “desire” is a constant source of tension between a president and journalists covering him, according to another New York Times White House correspondent, Jackie Calmes. “We never think we have enough access and want to be told more…while presidents often don't like what we write,” she told FRANCE 24.

Calmes’ colleague Peter Baker confirmed that this White House especially never hesitates to voice displeasure at a given article. “We hear very quickly and very caustically when they don’t like our stories,” Baker told FRANCE 24. “We have a lot of unpleasant back-and-forth with the White House.”

Using new media to avoid old media

The president – known to be an avid reader of several major US newspapers, as well as magazines The Economist and The New Yorker -- has reportedly complained about what he calls “false balance”: the tendency of journalists to give both sides of a policy debate equal space in their articles, even when one side has been declared factually inaccurate.

But new methods of communication have enabled Obama to circumvent traditional media outlets in reaching the public. The administration frequently uses Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to publish photos of the president, blog posts on policy issues, and videos in which White House staffers discuss their work -- without sending the material to the press first.

“Presidents will use whatever tools are at hand to advantage themselves,” The Brookings Institution’s Stephen Hess said, noting that social media is what Obama has at his disposal to connect directly to Americans and avoid what he sees as unflattering coverage.

But many White House correspondents like Baker think that both the press and the president are losing out. “It’s in the president’s best interests to be well understood by the people who present him to the public every day.” Baker said. “My concern is that the public knows what’s going on in the White House and understands the decisions being made in their name. And it’s hard for us to get at what’s really motivating [Obama] to make those decisions.”

Obama himself has expressed his will to shape the perception of his presidency, without relying on the press. “The mistake of my first term…was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” the president said in an interview with CBS in July. “But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.”

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