How Obama Administration-Controlled Media Is Used to Avoid Scrutiny from the Press

October 14, 2013 in News by The Manimal

Source: The Dissenter

What makes the crackdown on leaks, increased denials of Freedom of Information Act requests and surveillance of journalists even more pernicious is how this conduct by President Barack Obama’s administration has taken place as the administration simultaneously uses its own media to pump out its own message.

In a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists on, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” which details leaks investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America, an entire section focuses on the administration’s promise of transparency.

“By the end” of Obama’s “first full day” as president “on January 21, 2009, he had issued directives to government agencies to speed up their responses to Freedom of Information Act requests and to establish ‘Open Government Initiative’ websites with information about their activities and the data they collect,” according to the report authored by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. However, those “government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.”

The strategy has been a marketing ploy. “Most Transparent Administration Ever™” has been a slogan. It has been a product of an administration that Advertising Age recognized as “marketer of the year” in 2008.

The administration has pioneered how government can use social media to distribute what it wants the public to know. Relying on social media to make public announcements has meant there is “no access to the daily business in the Oval Office, who the president meets with, who he gets advice from,” according to ABC News Whiste House correspondent Ann Compton.

Compton is someone who has been reporting on presidents since Gerald Ford and she told Downie that “many of Obama’s important meetings with major figures from outside the administration on issues like health care, immigration, or the economy are not even listed on Obama’s public schedule. This makes it more difficult for the news media to inform citizens about how the president makes decisions and who is influencing them.”

“In the past, we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward,” Compton also said. “This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”

Filling the void created is a White House-produced newscast called “West Wing Week.” This short program is posted to the White House website and, as Compton said, “It’s five minutes of their own video and sound from events the press didn’t even know about.” But, that’s five minutes of images and messaging the Obama administration wants the public to see and hear.

Products of this savvy public relations operation are often what reporters are told to reference when they ask the White House questions. Chris Schlemon, a Washington producer for the British television news network, Channel 4, said, “When you call the White House press office to ask a question or seek information, they refer us to White House websites. We have to use White House website content, White House videos of the president’s interviews with local television stations and White House photographs of the president.”

Press, who react to the production of their own “news” content, as a way of avoiding reporters are considered to be engaged in “special pleading,” as one senior administration official who refused to be named told Downie. This anonymous official suggested the closed meetings offer a “net increase in the visibility” of meetings that would otherwise be closed to them. However, that suggests the Obama may be getting away with closing meetings they should be granting press access by simply putting out their own descriptions, images and video afterward.

It is like the administration is producing propaganda and peddling it as openness and transparency.

While it may seem reactionary to accuse the administration of disseminating propaganda to the public as a substitute for news that might leave the administration looking unappealing, it really is not when one examines the reaction to press, who do try to get officials in the White House press office and public affairs offices to answer questions for stories.

Washington correspondent and author Josh Meyer, a reporter for the Atlantic Media national news website Quartz, said, “They don’t return repeated phone calls and emails” and “feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage.” Eric Schmitt, who is the national security correspondent for The New York Times, said they almost have “an obligation to control the message the way they did during the campaign” and “more insidious than the chilling effect of the leaks investigations” is how they will stall when asked questions.

On top of that, officials in the White House will call reporters if they do not approve of certain coverage of the administration. “Sometimes their levels of sensitivity amaze me—about something on Twitter or a headline on our website,” Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida said.

Beyond complaining, the administration will try to talk reporters out of approaching a story from a premise they dislike. According to POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein, who has covered the White House and its information policies, “The Obama people will spend an hour with you, off the record, arguing about the premise of the story. ”

“If the story is basically one that they don’t want to come out, they won’t even give you the basic facts,” he stated.

Though it was not highlighted in CPJ’s report, USA Today reporter Brian Heath published a story on the Justice Department indicating, through a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, that it never looked into complaints by an ethics office that two federal judges were misled by the National Security Agency on September 19.

Justice Department Office of Public Affairs Director Brian Fallon was asked responsibly by Heath to provide any facts that might require a reevaluation of the story before publishing it. Rather than productively assist Heath, Fallon chose to handle the request in the following manner:

I have an answer from OPR, and a FISC judge. I am not providing it to you because all you will do is seek to write around it because you are biased in favor of the idea that an inquiry should have been launched. So I will save what I have for another outlet after you publish.

Heath continued to engage Fallon, who seemed to grow more nasty toward him as he tried to be reasonable:

From: Heath, Brad []
Sent: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 10:04 AM
To: Fallon, Brian (OPA)
Subject: RE: Catching up

Last try: I spoke to my editors again this morning; our view is that we’ve been more than patient on this. If you have answers to my questions, please share them. If not, I don’t see that we have any alternative but to write what we have been told. Please let me know by noon.

From: Fallon, Brian (OPA) []
Sent: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 10:10 AM
To: Heath, Brad
Subject: Re: Catching up

I’m done negotiating. Go forward if you want, and I will work with someone else afterwards explaining why what you reported is off base.

From: Heath, Brad []
Sent: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 10:29 AM
To: Fallon, Brian (OPA)
Subject: RE: Catching up

Your call. For the record, I’m not trying to negotiate. I’m trying to get answers to basic questions.

From: Fallon, Brian (OPA) []
Sent: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 10:55 AM
To: Heath, Brad
Subject: RE: Catching up

You are not actually open-minded to the idea of not writing the story. You are running it regardless. I have information that undercuts your premise, and would provide it if I thought you were able to be convinced that your story is off base. Instead, I think that to provide it to you would just allow you to cover your bases, and factor it into a story you still plan to write. So I prefer to hold onto the information and use it after the fact, with a different outlet that is more objective about whether an [Office of Professional Responsibility] inquiry was appropriate.

The exchange shows Obama administration officials will not only refuse to answer questions but will threaten to go to another reporter with information they know will undermine a news story they did not want written.

The administration, according to POLITICO journalists Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, are “more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like.” So, in that context, one could view the crackdown on leaks as a part of the public relations operation of keeping everyone on message.

Social media, photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides—Those who could all be used to create an “open dialogue with the public,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said. “But if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.”

The dictionary definition of propaganda is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” If Russian or Chinese officials did what the Obama administration was doing, it would be regarded as propaganda.

The Obama administration, which the New York Times’ David Sanger calls the “most control freak administration” he has ever covered, knows that reporters or journalists have a job to do and will print whatever they can get in some cases. If they cannot get proof to back up what they think the administration is really doing, they’ll settle for what they can get with the access they have.

And, if reporters get in the way of the administration’s award-winning marketing campaign by engaging in investigative journalism, there will be hell to pay from disapproving officials, who are not afraid to come down hard on sources in ways aimed at bringing the news gathering process to a standstill.