This past weekend, President Obama joked about his own communications team replacing the White House press corps. He wasn’t far from the truth...
"President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House...One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is extensive government creation of content (photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides), which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media..." - Jim VandeHei & Mike Allen, POLITICO
"Recently, though, I found a new favorite source for political news -- these guys are great. I think everybody here should check it out, they tell it like it is. It's called whitehouse.gov. (Laughter.) I cannot get enough of it." -Barack Obama, White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner
Why is there a White House press corps? The last time the New York Times was granted an interview with Obama was in 2010. But it’s not just the New York Times. The president hasn’t sat down with reporters from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, or POLITICO in years. If people can get their White House news from WhiteHouse.gov, what’s the point of having political reporters at all?
The common answer is that political reporters are there to ask hard questions of people in power. To speak truth to power. But asking hard questions doesn’t get you very far if you don’t get any answers. Speaking truth to power is difficult to do when you’re not even granted an interview. Politicians have always been afraid of being asked difficult questions. That fear, however, was always counterbalanced by the politician’s need to reach an audience, first through newspaper, then radio and finally TV. With each technological leap, the media seemed to grow in power.
On television, skipping over or dodging a difficult question could become the headline of the day, no matter how well the other questions were answered. Reporters had their own reputations and personalities, and were often more adept on camera. They had large audiences and were trusted and respected. Increasingly, their reputation wasn’t merely built on having a politician as a guest, but on having the gall to go after that politician, to attack with the most difficult questions they could find. To trap the politician in a mis-statement or half-truth, to prove their own mettle as independent lions of the press, that proud and defiant fourth branch of government.
The internet and social media has finally swung the pendulum in the other direction. Politicians can now reach citizens directly—there’s no need of a mediator of any kind. No need to sit down and submit to the scrutiny of the camera or the intense interrogation of the press. With one tweet or Pinterest post, one well-crafted blog or video, a politician can say exactly what needs to be said and nothing more. So who needs the reporters?
Even today, it’s all too easy for reporters to be painted as mere mediators—copyists who copy down the events of the day and deliver headlines to citizens. Like the U.S. Postal Service, they were carriers of information. And, just as email and Facebook means that we don’t need our mailmen as much anymore, the White House might assume that we don’t need our political press anymore.
For a lot of functions, we don’t need press at all. With technology, we can have more direct access to the information in our world. An app that tracks flight information will provide better minute-by-minute data than a lone reporter stationed at the airport. A direct feed into Google Maps will provide live traffic data for the exact route ahead of us better than any traffic reporter could. So shouldn’t we assume that with government releasing direct information to citizens, there’s no need for the political reporter? After all, when I can see a map of how the stimulus dollars are being spent in my neighborhood, why should I wait for a reporter to highlight two or three projects taking place halfway across the country?
These are all good questions, and some of them may be answered better by WhiteHouse.gov or Google than the New York Times—but political reporters are unique from other reporters. Because government isn’t just some random event or arcane data point that needs reporting-on, like a hurricane or a volcano erupting—even though it can sometimes feel that way. No, government—at least our democratic government—is a dialogue. It’s an active conversation between we the people and our elected representatives. How do we communicate our interests to public officials? How do we know if they’re representing those interests? How do we keep them focused on what matters? The answer is: the press.
The press is not just there to relay information from the government, it’s there to represent the interests of the people to the government, to serve as our proxies, our watchdogs—to stand face to face with power and ask: “WTF? Please explain.” It's easy to forget that the press represents we the people just as much as those we elect.
Does the White House think that it can have this direct conversation with the public on Twitter? That those on Facebook will serve that vital role in the dialogue? Maybe the White House genuinely believes this, and that's why Obama has answered questions on Reddit and through Google+. Maybe in some utopian world this works, but I'm not sure it does in this one. And the reason why is the same reason that we elect representatives in the first place: because we’re busy.
A true democracy wouldn't work because we’re busy. There are just too many issues to understand and vote on; that’s why we’re not just a democracy, we’re a republic. We elect representatives to mind these issues for us, to understand their complications and make choices based on our best interest.
For this very same reason, a true dialogue between government and citizens won't work, especially in a government—and a world—as complicated as ours. There are simply too many issues and moving pieces to follow; that's why we need a true and substantive press. That’s the “job to be done” that we hire our press for—a whole staff dedicated to getting to the bottom of government, to keeping their eye on it 24/7. We trust our reporters to understand the process, to find the relevant information, to frame the right questions, and to demand true answers—not sound-bites or polished photos. Not 1,200 page PDF documents, but 1,200 word summaries that get to the heart of the issue. That's what a real 4th branch is all about.
But today, we're in a transition period. That old idea and purpose of media—acting as a medium—has fallen away; it's no longer relevant. The press is understandably uneasy with this truth. But rather than try to fight the march of time, the political press should embrace it. They should recognize that their true purpose was never to relay information, but to serve the interests of readers and citizens by asking the right questions and understanding the complicated workings of our government.
Embracing this means discarding a lot of what they think their job is: forget about printing photos of skeet-shooting and golf outings, or asking questions about the First Lady's dress or taking the opportunity for a photo-opp. Let the President's handlers handle those questions, let them feature the photos of Pete Souza on WH.gov. We'll see that stuff anyway, whether it's on CNN or Twitter. Forget that mess, and instead, dig into the meaty issues and serve us by getting the story at all costs. If the press did this, if it suddenly declined trips to golf outings and instead stayed behind in DC, to coordinate coverage and corroborate hand-fed information, they would go a long way in demonstrating that though the world has changed—their importance hasn't.
It won't be easy; the press will have to adjust its tactics. Hard-hitting questions don't work if you can't get the interview in the first place. Reporters may have to tone down their adversarial mindset, recognizing that the power of broadcast as a medium is waning. Instead, they must lure politicians with only one thing: a sincere interest in understanding the situation and engaging in a meaningful dialogue. Reporters and politicians are in fact two sides of the same coin—they are both representatives of we the people, so rather than competing for our affections, how about collaborating in our interest?
Politicians must feel comfortable enough to speak freely without fear that their honest answers are taken out of context and played as gaffes. There's a reason why they are weary of speaking freely. In this new world, the press will need to cap its manic glee at every flub, or it risks securing a scripted, access-free future for us all. At the same time, politicians will need to recognize that any true and substantive exchange with citizens—any actual trust—must be won by an open dialogue, not an orchestrated communications campaign.
The first step, though, is to recognize the reality. This is an existential crisis for the political press. Obama's team isn't to blame for these developments; they may have accelerated the arrival of this new paradigm, but it was bound to happen at some point. In the end, this could be a healthy opportunity to refocus political reporting on substance, or it could be the first stirrings of a superficial, more cloistered political era.
No matter what happens, the occupants of this White House—and the one after it, and the one after that—are going to keep using whatever tools they have to reach citizens directly. That's a given. But what isn't a given is how the press reacts. The future is in their hands. It's up to them whether they want to hold fast to an outworn access strategy that is no longer relevant, or whether they are prepared to change the way they view their role and to truly embrace their responsibility to the citizens they serve.
I'm hopeful someone will get it right.