I have a perverse habit: I listen to AM radio whenever I’m alone in the rental car while visiting family in Texas or the Midwest. I start at the low end of the AM radio spectrum, 535 kiloHertz, and methodically scan my way to the opposite end, 1705 kHz, usually in 10 kHz increments. Over thousands of miles I’ve concluded that AM radio in the heartland consists of five major categories:
- Right-wing talk radio
- Christian radio
- Country-western music
- Ranchero music
If I can’t get good reception on a baseball game, I search for right-wing talk radio. My son refers to this as my “morbid curiosity” – the same morbid curiosity that compelled him to attend a Rick Perry campaign event earlier this year near his home in the People’s Republic of Berkeley.
On my latest trip to Texas, a conservative radio host was explaining to a caller that even the journalists at Fox News are now catering to the Obama White House. (Fox News had reported that enrollment in Obamacare was higher than expected.) The AM radio talk-show host explained to the caller that the White House press corps has always been made up of liberals, and that “everyone knows” that “they’re all in bed together.”
I, for one, did not know that. In fact, my understanding is that the relationship between the current White House and journalists is about as strained as at any time since the George W. Bush White House gave press credentials from 2003 to 2005 to “Jeff Gannon,” Washington Bureau Chief and Chief White House Correspondent for Talon News. [* See footnote.]
On AM radio’s conservative talk shows, anyone who reports news favorable to the president, or unfavorable to the conservative base, fits into the conservative trope of “liberal media.”
A bit closer to reality: The Obama Administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation,” according to James Risen of The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is facing prison for doing his job. And remember, Risen is measuring the Obama Administration against the Bush Administration, with whom he famously tangled. From the New York Times:
“When the Bush administration first subpoenaed Mr. Risen in early 2008, he was already well known inside the White House. He was one of two reporters for The Times who in 2005 broke the news that Mr. Bush’s government had conducted warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Mr. Bush described the reporting on the wiretapping program as “shameful.”
According to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson:
“This is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush’s first term.”
In its efforts to discourage government officials from talking to the media, the Obama Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from more than 20 phone lines belonging to the Associated Press, including home phone numbers of some reporters. It also went to court to obtain the personal email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen, even arguing that he was a “criminal co-conspirator” in an investigation of government leaks. Why? He was doing his job, asking questions.
If the Texas conservative AM radio talk show host and his callers are correct in saying that the “liberal media” and the White House are “all in bed together,” it certainly isn’t a bed of Rose Garden roses.
The discord is not limited to national security issues, and it is not entirely the fault of the administration. Experienced (i.e. expensive) journalists are losing their jobs, news budgets are being slashed, and competition for “glamorous” journalism jobs — like White House correspondent — is fierce. Having won the coveted White House press pass, no journalist wants to lose it. But to keep it, the journalist has to have access to sources within the administration.
Ask too many uncomfortable questions, and that access goes away. The journalist’s job is then at risk.
Contrary to popular belief, reporters are human. They don’t want to lose their jobs. The communications people in the White House know this, and they exploit this. This is true whether the administration is Republican or Democratic. The good reporters seek sources deeper in the government, sources that might not be approved by the administration. Lazier reporters don’t want to annoy the people who hand out press credentials, so they don’t ask the hardball questions.
At the same time, the hyper-competitive 24-hour news cycle is now the “digital first” 60-second news cycle. Reporters lose their jobs for being consistently scooped by other reporters, even by a few minutes, even if the news is merely rumor, even if the news turns out to be wrong. Reporters are also competing against bloggers and tweeters and other social media “news” breakers. There are fewer fact-checkers, fewer editors willing to delay publication to insist on bulletproof stories. And yet, once a reporter writes or tweets a nugget of news — verified or not — other reporters frantically pick it up and pass it along. No wonder the White House is wary of dealing with the modern press corps.
An interesting peek behind the scenes is Reid Cherlin’s account in the latest Rolling Stoneabout “the history of the toxic relationship” between Obama and journalists. Cherlin is a former Obama Administration assistant press secretary, now a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Excerpt:
“When I catch up with [former White House Press Secretary Scott] Carney a few days after he left the White House, he says one effect “of all the cutting and slashing” of the news media is that “everybody’s strung out and incapable of taking a breath and actually thinking about what they’re saying or writing.” It drives conflict between the president’s staff and the press, he says, because reporters are under so much pressure and constantly demanding that the White House confirm every rumor and react to every slight. “More than ever,” Carney says, “press offices are bracing themselves and have to resist being reactive to what’s just coming over the transom – and so much more comes over so much more quickly that you get into that reactive mode very quickly.” Before you know it, everyone is fuming – or shouting.
“And then there is Twitter, which is now the premier driver of a news cycle that boils around the clock. In an erosion of traditional editorial neutrality, reporters take to Twitter not just to break stories but also to break half-stories, or rumors, or just retweet another reporter’s tweet about a possible development. It’s a kind of accelerating group-reporting that blurs traditional ideas of journalistic responsibility. “The intensity of the way stories break and become huge deals,” Carney says, “and on the back end the way they burn out more quickly, too” – as the hive moves on to the next item of interest – “that’s totally new.”
* “Jeff Gannon” was later revealed to be gay prostitute whose real name was James Dale Guckert. He had no professional journalism background. Talon News was a blog operated and paid for by a conservative activist group in Texas called GOPUSA. Guckert’s White House press corps duties appeared to consist entirely of interrupting news conferences to ask pro-Administration softball questions whenever the questioning from legitimate journalists became uncomfortable for Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan.
Revisionist History: This post was edited to fix typos.