Guest commentary: President Obama's wasted worries about the press
By Jeffrey M. McCall
Constitutional framer Thomas Jefferson used part of his second inaugural address to lambast the news industry. Even though he was a key architect of the First Amendment that guarantees press freedom, he was fed up by the end of his first term. He said "the artillery of the press" had been leveled against him. He accused the press of "licentiousness" and said press abuses were "deeply to be regretted."
So, too, President Ulysses S. Grant used part of his second inaugural to criticize the press. In just four short years, Grant's status as war hero had been diminished by negative press attention.
Richard Nixon famously listed reporters on his enemies list and sent Vice President Spiro Agnew out to lash the press as "nattering nabobs of negativism." John Adams signed into law the Sedition Acts, which allowed the government to imprison publishers who wrote unkind things about his administration. FDR instituted his radio "fireside chats" in part to circumvent press coverage of his administration and speak directly to the nation.
All presidents, of both parties, eventually tire of hearing critical news reports about their administrations. It can't be a surprise, then, that Barack Obama is part of the long chorus of presidents who have chastised the media. In his recent interview with The New Republic, the president went after his usual foes, Fox News Channel and talk radio. Nothing new here. He and his spokesmen have been doing that for years. That presidential disdain actually might have helped boost the ratings for FNC and talk show hosts such as Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.
But the president curiously expanded his press analysis by complaining that reporters are too objective in covering Capitol gridlock.
"In fact, that's one of the biggest problems we've got in how folks report about Washington right now," he said, "because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity."
It is one thing for Obama to rip on FNC and radio talkers, but his criticism of the media takes on a curious dimension when he says that objectivity is "one of the biggest problems." And putting "rightly" in front of "impartiality" hardly mitigates the basic message: the president wants better treatment for his side of national debates. He believes opposing arguments deserve less attention. Such a style of "journalism" — that panders to a national leader's wishes — has not served citizens well in the countries where it has been implemented.
The president's news coverage complaints come at a time when it would seem he has the news industry just about where he would want it anyway. Studies show Obama received more positive coverage in the 2012 campaign than his opponent. The president supports abortion, so he should be glad that the recent pro-life rallies in Washington received scant mainstream media coverage. Recent negative economic news about GDP decline and unemployment has received a soft landing in national media. The normally aggressive "60 Minutes" allowed Steve Kroft to do a social interview with the president and Hillary Clinton, instead of charging into world affairs. Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone recently said in a broadcast interview that reporters on the campaign trail would "swoon" in Obama's presence. Former presidents Truman, LBJ, George W. Bush and even Lincoln never got such beneficial media treatment.
Ultimately, political leaders complaining about the media normally don't help their causes. Nixon's attacks on the media didn't keep the media from looking for and finding the corruption in his administration. Sarah Palin's attacks on the "lamestream media" came to define her and negated whatever other messages she might have had.
Early in his presidency, John Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
"No president should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary," he said. "Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive."
Kennedy was president for only three months when he made those remarks, and there is no way to know if his sentiments might have hardened over several years of the press scrutiny he was inviting. But the words ring solid in the abstract, away from today's rough-and-tumble political times. The Obama administration should reflect on Kennedy's words and remember that old "ink by the barrel" expression. There are too many other national issues to ponder than to be distracted by critiques of particular media organizations.
Jeffrey M. McCall, a Champaign native, is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall.