Bob Franken

Subpar Media Relations

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It’s a story that may seem to be a concern only to those who are inside the inside of the Beltway: White House press corps members gripe that they were kept way far away and given no chance for any shots or video of President Barack Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods during his Florida weekend. Nothing whatsoever, no photo op, nada. The main public reaction is “Who cares?”
Actually, there’s reason to care. It’s easy to understand why Mr. President wouldn’t want to be seen chumming around with a man who has such a sordid past. So, while he was all too glad to let us record him with House Speaker John Boehner on the links, Woods might complicate the image control.
And “control” is the operative word. In a fine piece in Politico, my friends Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen write, “President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.”
The tactics include keeping the knowledgeable beat reporters at bay and instead granting interviews with more pliant ones — local TV anchors, for instance, who are more likely to ask puffball questions. That is accompanied by intimidation of the regulars and their management if they have the audacity to do a report that displeases the administration. The browbeating can take many forms, such as freezing out those who don’t play ball.
Frankly, it’s too bad that it’s taken this long for the correspondents to be so up in arms. There are many more-consequential issues where the Obama White House simply slams the door on information. And it’s not only journalists who are shut out. Look at the struggle Congress has had getting details on drone warfare and the legal rationale of targeting American citizens. Look at how litigation has been thwarted when national-security officials hide questionable actions in “State Secrets” bunkers. It’s a long list, and it leaves an impression that this chief executive sometimes sees himself as above accountability.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that Barack Obama is not the first whose minions try to bully those who cover them. When I was assigned to the Clinton scandals at CNN, I did so as the “Outside the Gate” reporter not vulnerable to the constant harangues my colleagues inside suffered. Many were the late-night calls from worried supervisors who had been brutalized by someone in the administration. With our setup, they could call the complainers back and tell them I was too unruly to control.
The same type of heavy-handedness came from the Bush people, both 41 and 43, and yes, the Reaganites — and we all knew about Nixon. It is also what to expect when covering the military. In fact, it’s part of the job. It only gets worse with the years. “Openness” and “transparency” are just platitudes.
Yes, the Tiger Woods brouhaha seems trivial. That’s because it is, except that it stands for the larger problem of a mindset that officials should decide what citizens should know, forgetting that it is really the citizens’ government. As imperfect as we are, we riffraff in the media are the ones who are supposed to provide a glimmer of knowledge. Unfortunately, we’ve become wimps.
The White House arrangement is supposed to be that when something is newsworthy, we should expect to at least get a photo opportunity. While it is true that Obama was taking a couple of days off and playing golf with Tiger Woods won’t change the course of history, it’s newsworthy. The president isn’t really ever off the clock — that’s the price one pays for all the perks of being the nation’s temporary monarch. We expect that some aspects of his life are off-limits, but his predisposition should be to keep the public informed. The camera crews who accompany him are a mechanism for that. Sneaking away from them is unworthy of the office.

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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