President Obama entered the presidency promising the most open, transparent, and press-friendly administration in history. On the other hand, he also promised millions of new jobs and “if you like your doctor you can keep him,” and look what happened.
Press freedom has eroded significantly in the Obama years. When the president came into office in 2009, the U.S. was tied with the U.K. and Luxembourg for 20th on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. In the latest report, the United States has fallen to #46, which puts us just below Romania. But the good news is, we are still one up on Haiti.
The White House grows more secretive week by week. The latest blow is the ban on reporters accompanying First Lady Michelle Obama on her trip to China. It’s a sad day when we have to rely on the People’s Republic for coverage of a trip by an American semi-official. We also aren’t allowed to know how much the trip will cost, or if it will be a round trip.
A reporter from a local CBS affiliate in Arizona claimed this week that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gets daily press briefing questions in advance. (Mr. Carney has denied this, but no word on whether he was given that question in advance too.) So why go through the ritual of having the daily briefing at all? Just conduct the transaction through email, or a list-serv. The same reporter said that one-on-one interviews with the president were limited to four minutes, because Mr. Obama “tends to get very chatty.” Aides “suggested” they not go over the limit, so, no pressure, just a White House functionary standing behind you with a stop watch in one hand and an IRS audit summons in the other.
Mr. Obama rewrote Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules to shield from public view “all documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House.” In other words, everything. He especially wanted to block access to any materials that might be politically or personally embarrassing, which is to say, anything newsworthy. Forget the fact that a president who unilaterally and probably illegally rewrites the law is itself news, he does it all the time and nobody seems to care. In this case perhaps he doesn’t know what the “F” in FOIA stands for, either that or he has amended it with a new F-word.
For news organizations fed up with this sort of behavior and looking to save time and money, there is a simple solution. Just stop covering the White House. They don’t want you there, it’s frustrating for reporters and expensive for their employers. It’s not like the administration makes much news. The biggest story this week was Mr. Obama’s NCAA brackets, which gives new meaning to the expression March Madness. The only way his picks could actually be news is if he won Warren Buffett’s billion dollars challenge, which would defray part of the cost of Michelle’s China trip.
The Associated Press already has a moratorium on White House “handout” photos, which photographer Charles Dharapak calls “visual press releases.” And there is no compelling reason to run pictures of Mr. Obama, the public already knows what he looks like. People can go to the White House web site if they need an O-fix. And the Obama PR pros know what they are doing; they are the geniuses who released the picture of the president awkwardly holding a shotgun at Camp David that kept photoshoppers busy for weeks. Or that image of the patient Marine holding an umbrella over Mr. Obama at a podium when he would rather have been overseas killing terrorists.
Sure, Mr. Obama is still the president, so if media outlets want to fulfill their sense of civic duty they can always reprint White House press releases, and emails of the speeches his staff wrote. It’s an easy cut and paste. This would be a time-saver for the president too; he wouldn’t have to show up for press appearances or policy statements, and could focus like a laser on golf and fundraising.
On the off-chance Mr. Obama happens to do something newsworthy, major news organizations won’t miss out. Someone will catch it, a blogger or random person with a video. Just give their post some link love and get back to covering serious stories, like the missing Malaysian airliner being swallowed up by a black hole, or Russia invading another or all of its neighbors. When the White House issues its testy letter to Vladimir Putin, link to it somewhere on your site.
Ending White House coverage is an instant money saver. Why pay high-salaried White House correspondents when you can hand the job over to an intern with a talent for aggregation, rewrites, and clickable headlines? Dateline Washington: “The White House released its new budget today and what happened next blew my mind.”
James S. Robbins is the author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism and the New American Identity and former senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.