The top Super Bowl highlight was not Peyton Manning struggling or Renee Fleming singing or even that adorable puppy nuzzling a horse in the Budweiser commercial. It was Bill O’Reilly grilling Barack Obama.
The Fox News commentator was respectful but tough. The president was testy but forthcoming — even admitting that administration officials had made “boneheaded decisions” in investigating the tax status of conservative groups. The 10-minute session did not provide any surprising revelations, but it did offer a useful glimpse into Obama’s thinking and temperament.
The most striking thing about the interview is that fresh insights into Obama’s frame of mind are so rare. This White House has been extremely diligent, and successful, in controlling the images and information the public receives about their president.
Of course every president, of either party, wants to manage the news to his own advantage. But it’s hard to argue with David Sanger, a veteran Washington correspondent for The New York Times when he says, “This is the most closed control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
To be fair, Team Obama would be guilty of malpractice if they didn’t use all the new communications tools now available to them. They have created what we call the OBN, the Obama Broadcasting Network — a complex of social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Flickr and YouTube — to communicate directly with supporters outside the filter of annoying journalists like O’Reilly and Sanger.
That system was on full display last week around the State of the Union address. On whitehouse.gov, the hub of the OBN, folks were urged not just to watch the speech but to participate actively as broadcasters, producers and content providers. Handy charts, case studies and talking points reinforcing the president’s themes were displayed with a big “share” button right there on the screen.
There’s nothing inherently sinister about the OBN itself. Dan Pfeiffer, senior White House adviser and former communications director, was certainly correct when he told The New York Times, “The media has become so diffuse that communicating one’s message requires a lot more work than it used to. You have to be willing to go where the viewers are, because they have so much choice in where they get information.”
The problem comes when the OBN is used to replace other sources of information, to evade the media and short-circuit its ability to hold the president accountable.
During his first term, for example, Obama held fewer full-dress news conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan. Yes, he sits for many one-on-one interviews, but they are often with friendly questioners, like Chris Matthews of MSNBC, or entertainers like David Letterman, who don’t have the information or inclination to test him the way O’Reilly did.
Then there is the dispute over access to the president for outside photographers. Many of the images that citizens see of Obama and his family are taken — and selected — by his own staff to put the president in the best possible light.
Last November, dozens of news outlets sent a strong letter to press secretary Jay Carney complaining that “journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the president while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government.”
Even more seriously, this White House has employed espionage laws to intimidate and even prosecute journalists who procure inside information from administration sources.
Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, told Al Jazeera America: “The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history. It’s on a scale never seen before. This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.”
Leonard Downie Jr., the former editor of The Washington Post, wrote recently that journalists covering national security issues are “facing vast and unprecedented challenges” in simply doing their job. “They find that government officials are increasingly fearful of talking to them, and they worry that their communications with sources can be monitored at any time.”
When that happens, when independent sources of information shrivel, our rights as citizens shrivel as well. One 10-minute chat with Bill O’Reilly won’t do much to pry the administration’s hand off the camera lens of history. But it’s a good start.