Obama sets a new standard for managing the media

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In the past week, President Barack Obama spoke via video to Iranians and, separately, to viewers of a Latin music awards show, appeared on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" and on "60 Minutes," held a prime-time news conference at which he called on several special-audience publications and wrote an opinion column that ran in newspapers around the world.

He also arranged two events that bypassed the news media, an online "town hall" and a volunteer door-knocking campaign across the nation to rouse support for his budget.

His White House is working to push and control his message through new and old media, and in some innovative ways. In short, Obama has the most multifaceted communications strategy in presidential history.

"They have to have this," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

People today consume news as bits of information from mainstream and niche sources and from one another, driving a White House intent on shaping the news to an innovative communication strategy. Blogs, online news sites and ethnic media have grown dramatically in size and influence, even as newspapers disappear.

"We have lived through what amounts to probably two generations of technological revolution," Rosenstiel said.

While the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is becoming a familiar figure to many Americans because of his televised briefings, the Obama White House also has directors of new media, online programs, broadcast media, regional media, African-American media, Hispanic media, research and "message events."

The White House's press, communications, speech-writing and new media staffs remain about the size they were under former President George W. Bush — around 50 — said Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest.

But Obama's team has shifted its focus more toward new media, whether it's keeping the White House Web site updated or communicating with bloggers. There's also a new position — director of citizen participation — that's led by a former Google manager. It's still being defined.

"Our administration is employing a range of technologies to communicate directly to the American people and to demonstrate the president's focus on those issues," Earnest said. "The media industry is different. The way people across the country consume their news is different. It's a lot more segmented; it's fractured. Part of what's required in delivering a clear message is being able to communicate clearly and effectively with different people in different environments."

Rosenstiel said he saw "a meta-message" in the emphasis on new technology:

" 'I'm a new kind of politician because I do new media.' "

At the same time, Rosenstiel said, the administration has continued the old-school White House tradition of being "pretty aggressive about leaking trial balloons and things like that" through establishment news organizations.

Elements of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's bank rescue plan, the president's budget plan and Obama's vow to cut the federal deficit in half in his first term were leaked to selected outlets before the official rollout. Often such stories fed by leaks recite the administration's assertions and assumptions without critical analysis, because raising such questions might shut off access to more advance leaks. Even so, they influenced stock markets, framed coverage in ways that were favorable to Obama — and achieved the White House's goal of managing the news.

Similarly, during the recent controversy about what and when the administration knew about the American International Group bonuses, The Washington Post and other "old-media" outlets carried "tick-tock" stories recounting events based largely on background information supplied by administration officials who framed the story on the administration's terms.

All White Houses seek to shape or "spin" the coverage, Rosenstiel said. "The question is, is the press doing a good job of filtering that or are they just being used?" He said he saw plenty of media scrutiny in the symbiotic government-media relationship, even though some of the coverage was superficial.

Stephen Hess, a scholar of government-media relations at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center, who worked for the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, said the Obama White House's expanded outreach to nontraditional outlets came on top, not in place, of standard relations with the shrinking Washington press corps.

"The interaction between the Washington media and the political government hasn't really changed," Hess said.

What Hess finds particularly interesting is Obama's outreach to journalists from nontraditional media in his two prime-time news conferences.

In his first one, the president called on The Huffington Post, a liberal Web site. Of the 13 journalists he called on Tuesday night at his second news conference, five represented English-language network and cable TV outlets, one was a Spanish-language TV journalist and another wrote for an African-American magazine. The only newspapers he called on were The Washington Times, a conservative publication, and Stars and Stripes, the independent military publication. He took a question from Agence France-Presse, knowing that it would focus on foreign affairs. He also called on the print and online hybrid Politico, which political junkies read.

While the TV networks focused on the economic crisis, the nontraditional media questions focused on Mexican border policy, military spending, taxes on charitable giving, the morality of stem-cell research, the plight of homeless children and Middle East peace negotiations.

"They were niche organizations, as a rule," Hess said, "the sorts of organizations that aren't ordinarily called on. They have produced different types of questions. They were interesting."

Ebony magazine senior editor Kevin Chappell said the White House didn't tell him in advance that he'd be called on, but that Obama and his staff recognized the importance of the black vote in his election "and realize we are the largest African-American magazine in the world." Chappell said that day to day, he'd found the Obama press team more responsive to his outlet's requests than Bush team was.

He also said that the Obama press operation had arranged group interviews with the African-American media and several high-ranking administration officials after "we made it clear that we want to be a part of the process and we want to have our questions answered and taken seriously.

"I think they're reaching beyond the Washington crowd. They are reaching Americans who don't read traditional newspapers and get their news and information from other sources. It seems to me it's very effective."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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