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Experts Assess President Obama’s Strategy With Media

June 24, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks with media analysts about the press corps' coverage of President Obama during his first few months in office.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the Obama media message. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: From his January inauguration to today, President Obama has been a constant media presence, driven by policy — the domestic and international crises he’s had to deal with — and personality — the youthful figure and his family in an historic presidency.

In addition to daily news coverage, there have been several specials.

TV ANNOUNCER: Starting at 10:00, a television event from the White House.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tonight, ABC adds another with a primetime health care event from the White House.

MICHELLE OBAMA, First Lady of the United States: This is a beautiful home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Recently, NBC aired several behind-the-scenes reports for “The Today Show,” “Nightly News,” and two primetime specials.

There have also been numerous one-on-one interviews, including on the NewsHour, and a good deal of late-night levity.

Lots of coverage may be the norm for a new president, but some have wondered aloud about what Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson called an “Obama infatuation.” “Has any recent president basked in so much favorable media coverage?” Samuelson asked. “Well, maybe John Kennedy for a moment, but no president since. On the whole, this is not healthy for America.”

HOST: The president of the United States, Barack Obama.

Obama's rapport with the press

JEFFREY BROWN: The president himself recently had some fun with the press and his coverage at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why bother hanging out with celebrities when I can spend time with the people who made me one? I know where my bread is buttered.

JEFFREY BROWN: And at another media gathering this spring, the president said this.

BARACK OBAMA: I am Barack Obama. Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: How to measure all this? One prominent research group, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that 40 percent of stories, editorials, and op-ed columns about the president have been clearly positive in tone, compared with 22 percent for George Bush and 27 percent for Bill Clinton.

The president apparently does think that one news organization, Fox News, has treated him unusually harshly, stating on CNBC last week...

BARACK OBAMA: I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration. I mean, you know, that's a pretty...

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC correspondent: I assume you're talking about Fox.

BARACK OBAMA: Well, that's a pretty big megaphone. And you'd be hard-pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front.

JEFFREY BROWN: At yesterday's press conference, the mood was mostly all business, as the president was pushed on his stance on Iran.

CHIP REID, CBS News correspondent: Were you influenced at all by John McCain and Lindsey Graham accusing you of being timid and weak?

CHUCK TODD, NBC News correspondent: Why don't you spell out the consequences that the Iranian...

BARACK OBAMA: Because I think, Chuck, that we don't know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not, OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: There was also an exchange, it was reported today, that was agreed to in advance by the White House and the Huffington Post, not a spontaneous give-and-take, as is customary.

BARACK OBAMA: Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post.

NICO PITNEY, Huffington Post: I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there were moments of levity, showing the familiar relationship the president and press have developed with one another.

BARACK OBAMA: Was the reference to Spock -- is that a crack on my ears?

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, the online blogosphere is as contentious as ever, with sites right and left weighing in minute by minute with views for and against the president.

Comparing coverage of presidents

JEFFREY BROWN: And to our own discussion now with Blanquita Cullum, a longtime broadcaster, talk show host, and political commentator; Mark Knoller, White House correspondent for CBS News, where he reports for CBS Radio and the Saturday "Early Show"; and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which put out the study on the early coverage of the Obama administration.

Glad to got that out, Tom. I'm sorry.

Blanquita Cullum, Republican politicians, some conservative commentators like yourself see a press that is too fawning. Does that come out as an impact in the news itself? Do you see it showing up in the news?

BLANQUITA CULLUM, former talk radio host: Oh, it certainly has in the past come out, because you see, for example, right now, where networks like ABC are willing to commit all of the press -- devoted to kind of the president's spin on health care. Somebody said to me it was almost like having a State of the Union and having to wait a week for the response.

You see willing kind of -- he's got a superstar status, you know? He's very charming. He's affable. And based upon the last administration, you know, he came in to a press that was willing to be there for him, although I'm hearing now from a lot of my colleagues that the rumblings are not coming from the right, but from the left.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's come back to that. Mark Knoller, you've covered a lot of presidents. Do you see a difference in the media's coverage of this one, in terms of tone or amount of coverage?

MARK KNOLLER, CBS News: Well, I'm more struck by the similarities with coverage of previous presidents than I am with differences. Whenever a report goes out, it may be flattering, it may be unflattering, but it needs to be judged by whether it's truthful and accurate and fair. I don't know anybody in the press corps who is fawning over this president or any other president that I've covered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark, does the media get drawn in, though, to speak to Blanquita Cullum's point, to the popularity of a president?

MARK KNOLLER: Well, every president is popular to a certain degree. They all won election, and you don't become president of the United States without a certain degree of popularity.

That popularity certainly can wane over the course of a presidency, but that doesn't affect the way reporters cover the president. We cover what he says, what he does, what his policies are, and what he's trying to achieve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, let me bring you in here. First, since we're using your numbers, what do you mean by "positive coverage"? I'm sure a lot of people listening wonder, how do you define that?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, Project for Excellence in Journalism: Well, we're very conservative about that. We deem a story to be positive only if two-thirds of all the statements in the story are positive, and the statements have to be evaluative.

Now, if a president successfully wins a vote in the House or in the Senate, that's a positive statement because it happened and it was good for him. But many of the stories can be mixed or neutral.

And, in fact, the majority here -- actually, the plurality of stories were positive, but the number of stories that were mixed or neutral were close behind, very similar to the number.

Factors affecting coverage

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have been -- you and the organization have been watching coverage for a long time, and you're a former reporter yourself. Are there guidelines or standards -- help us with some context here -- guidelines or standards worth thinking about in trying to decide, where's the line of the amount of coverage or the tone of coverage?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, one of the things that's going on now is that stories that are covering the event themselves are overrun fairly quickly by stories that are evaluating and trying to interpret the news. There's a sense that the news moves so quickly that tonight's newscast is more interpretive than one would have been 10 years ago.

Primetime cable is all discussion. Tomorrow's newspaper has to add some other value. And that moves the press into trying to interpret where things are going or why something succeeded. And it piles on; there's a sort of snowball effect.

I would also say that, despite what Mark says about the press trying to be immune to the effect of polls, other political operatives and actors are not. And so, if a president is popular, Congress responds in a different way than if a president is unpopular. And that influences coverage, even the coverage that is simply reporting what people say. There's no doubt that a popular president gets better coverage because the press is trying to interpret that popularity.


BLANQUITA CULLUM: And that even started, actually -- I mean, I went to both conventions. I covered the Democratic convention and the Republican convention.

And so, while covering those, the difference about how the press was covering the candidate even then was very different from going to the Republican convention, which was almost -- you know, you could hear the echo in the room until later when Palin showed up.

And now, clearly, you can even see it in the way that the president addresses the press. I mean, he feels that he can be more confident and a little more cocky with the press because he knows that they were supportive of him and he knows that they voted for him. And that even shows in the gaggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but -- well, but let me ask you. When we talk about where's the line or the administration trying to craft a message, Ronald Reagan, early George W. Bush, I mean, weren't they getting similar kinds of coverage, at least certainly in the beginning? And Reagan, the acknowledged master of the image?

BLANQUITA CULLUM: And, believe me, you know, I think, if you're the guy that's got the popularity or the gal, whoever has the position, and you're going to try to get it across, you're going to try to move when that popularity is strong.

The president is taking a very big risk, as is ABC, in trying to implement this kind of push on the issue of health care because it's a big risk that could backfire. It can also work.

Now, it can backfire for ABC in that people are going to think that ABC is nothing but a mouthpiece for the president, because now they're not just doing one. They're going to be doing a series.

And it can backfire for the president, because people can say, "Don't patronize us. Don't think we're stupid." Or it could be successful. That's yet to be determined.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me bring Mark Knoller back in. How do you guard against what the suggestion is, a kind of manipulation by the administration of you guys, of what you're trying to do?

MARK KNOLLER: Every White House tries to manipulate the press to get best coverage from the press. That's nothing new. It goes back to every president I've covered dating back to Gerald Ford.

So you look to guard against that. And you're covering what the president says, what his policies are, without trying to be influenced by White House choreography of trying to influence how the press does things. But it's always present. It did not begin with Barack Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, you wanted to get in?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes, I think there are several biases that operate in the press. Politics is one of them. Ideology is one of them. A president who is programmatic, who sees government as a solution to a lot of things, often that orients to the way that reporters see it, since they're there to cover government.

But a president who's very skillful at communications, at manipulating the press, also earns the press's admiration, because he's good at their game, and other presidents have earned that who were not Democrats. And then there is simply the realpolitik mentality of the press. A president who is winning gets winning coverage.

Trying to get the best coverage

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you started to talk earlier about you thought there was a backlash or something? I mean, is there a kind of rebalancing?

BLANQUITA CULLUM: Well, there's a little rumbling going on. And how the president, again, deals with this is going to show how successful he is at communicating to his own people.

What happened in the gaggle today was -- and that is the White House press corps -- they were very upset about how the president picked people to speak, and why there was a pre-worked-out question from the Huffington Post," and why he didn't go according to the seating chart, and why people at the front got questions and people at the back didn't.

And, you know, now they're trying to figure out, well, wait a minute, where is my place in all of this? And am I being used? Because, remember, the press, after all, they have to remember, they can't lose credibility and can't look like they're being tools of any administration.

So the president has to be able to start now trying to not fend off -- you know, like when he walked down there and he was just going to go meet with them one day and he was casual, and they asked him a tough question, and he said, "Wait a minute. I'm here just to talk to you."

They want the beef. They want the hard stuff. So if he doesn't come across or if he makes too many cute jokes, he's going to have a backlash.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mark Knoller, does experience tell you that these things do work in cycles like that?

MARK KNOLLER: Well, experience tells me that presidents always try to get the best coverage they can with whatever facilities they've got at their disposal.

There's no doubt that President Obama does a lot of interviews, but I suspect one reason he does is that he believes he's very good at them. And he accepts more of the requests for interviews than many of his predecessors did.

And so you see him doing a town meeting tonight on ABC. I have no doubt that President Obama feels he's very good in that kind of a forum, and that's why he agrees to do them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Rosenstiel, final word?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: There was another reason that Obama had a lot of success early on. He rolled out a lot of policy proposals early on, and it was hard for his opponents to catch up. Now that he's got to get things passed that are going to take longer, his opponents will have more time to mount their criticisms. And I think a slower pace helps his critics.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Rosenstiel, Blanquita Cullum and Mark Knoller, thank you all three very much.

MARK KNOLLER: Thank you.