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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   December/January 2009  issue

New Media and The Man   

How will an Internet-savvy president deal with the White House press corps?


By Lee Thornton
     

It's been widely reported that President-elect Barack Obama's campaign organized a database of more than 10 million names, including at least three million cash donors and who knows how many foot soldiers who took his agenda door to door.

Obama's grasp of the power of new media and those most likely to use it helped fuel his victory, a win solidified by two-thirds of the young voters who went to the polls.

About that voting block, the Obama campaign understood that they are tethered to and greatly dependent on their technology: their social networking sites, their touch screen mobile devices, their BFF Google. What the American political system witnessed this time around was a perfect collision of technology with a generation ready to rise up and embrace a cause. Candidate Obama understood those things in a way that his opposition obviously did not.

Now, we know that Obama is not going to just drop that idea, isn't about to abandon that virtual army of supporters as he tries to carry out one of the most ambitious political agendas of modern times one that he'll try to enact against the backdrop of a global economic crisis.

It's not yet clear quite how the president-elect will go about this process after his swearing-in. Even the hint of Obama using his cyberpowers seems to have put Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant's teeth on edge. Conant has expressed his hope that Obama "will be a president for all Americans, not just the political supporters on his e-mail list."

If Obama does try to sidestep the traditional media, it won't be a historic first. Newsweek's Jon Meacham, author of the new Andrew Jackson biography, "American Lion," noted in a recent National Public Radio interview that President Jackson, estranged from the press, responded by publishing his own newspaper.

Presidential message managing has taken on various guises through the ages. John F. Kennedy began the tradition of televised news conferences, handling the press deftly, his quick wit endearing him to reporters. Whether it was true or not, he gave the appearance of liking the press.

Researcher Stephen Cooper has noted that Lyndon Baines Johnson "understood well the publicity value of the American news media" and exploited reporters by attempting to use them as "torch bearers" for his programs and policies. At this, Johnson was only partially successful; he had a generally uncomfortable relationship with the press.

Moving right along past Richard Nixon's enemies list, well populated with the names of journalists, we come to Jimmy Carter, whose tendency to circle the wagons often locked out not only the press but his own Democratic Congressional leadership.

Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, sometimes handled reporters waiting outside the upper press room by tossing out a bit of information on the fly. The reporters who hung around his door I was among them weren't fond of the system, but we took what we could get. At least we had access to the area. Under Bill Clinton, the upper press offices were for a time literally closed off. The resulting howls of protest were straight out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, lickety split, reporters had their access once again.

The relationship between the president and the White House press corps has forever been one of mutual dependency, love-hate if you will. The chief executive has seen fit to handle reporters and manage his message in many ways. Former film star Ronald Reagan charged Michael Deaver with showcasing many of his announcements in epic fashion. If Reagan wanted to say something about environmental policy, for example, he did so against a breathtaking backdrop on Maryland's Eastern Shore. CBS' Lesley Stahl noted that the pictures overwhelmed a weak message. For Reagan, what mattered was the impression he left and Deaver knew his job. So did White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who improved communication with journalists by institutionalizing a daily informal briefing.

So presidential message managing is nothing new. But it's never been done quite the way a President Obama might consider doing it, straight from the manufacturer to untold millions of consumers, eliminating the middle man by way of his cybernetwork of contacts. That would be something different, and Obama should understand the tricky nature of the undertaking and the ramifications. Over time, can he really depend on his virtual army not to tire or be killed off by the brutality of the battles ahead? Indeed, as Peter Daou, Hillary Clinton's Internet adviser, has suggested, can they be counted on not to organize against Obama's policy decisions when they disagree?

The key factor may be whether Obama weighs the value of the cybertroops greater than that of a press corps whose job it is to be as objective as possible in its reporting. Perhaps he can strike a delicate balance between the two. If, as president, Obama can pull off that balance with the kind of strategic thinking that marked his campaign, it could work well for him. Otherwise, to paraphrase Congreve, President Obama is likely to find that hell hath no fury like a White House press corps scorned.