“Let me be clear ... ”
It’s one of Barack Obama’s most-often-used phrases. He said it on the campaign trail to emphasize promises. He said it in the White House to reiterate policy positions. He said it to let us know he was serious and sincere.
“Let me be clear, if you like your doctor or health care provider, you can keep them.”
“Let me be clear, the United States has no interest in running GM.”
“Let me be clear, I will only use this authority for reforms that result in more efficiency, better service and a leaner government.”
But “clear” and “transparent” are two entirely different notions when it comes to the Obama White House and members of the media are beginning to take notice. A new report by Politico blasts the president for manipulating information, resisting potentially difficult interviews and bullying those who ask tough questions (even going so far as to blacklist or shun reporters whose questions dig too deep).
“President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House,” the Politico report by Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen reads. “Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.”
Politico admits the president and his administration release an unprecedented amount of data and information — but that’s part of the problem, its writers argue. Instead of Obama submitting himself to the media for interviews, the president relies on White House-produced press releases, videos and photos to tell the story — allowing Obama to dictate how the press covers him and ensuring he isn’t caught in a flub or seen in an unfavorable light. (A recent example noted by Politico was the release of a photo of Obama shooting skeet at Camp David, meant to help tamp down criticism of the president’s gun control agenda. The image was taken by the White House photographer, posted to the White House Flikr account and released via a White House operative’s Twitter account.)
The president’s staff says this method of releasing information isn’t about not talking to the press — it’s about talking directly to the American people.
“This is the most transparent administration in history,” Obama’s camp boasted last week.
Reporters covering the White House disagree.
“The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace,” Ann Compton, an ABC News reporter who has covered every president back to Gerald R. Ford, told Politico. “The president’s day-to-day policy development — on immigration, on guns — is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it. There are no readouts from big meetings he has with people from the outside, and many of them aren’t even on his schedule. This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.”
It’s a strange turn of events for a president who campaigned on the idea of transparency, and sought to reinforce that idea once in office, saying he would hold himself “to a new standard of openness.”
“Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama said on his first day as president in January 2009.
“It’s a story that you should no longer believe,” John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, said, joining the criticism of Obama’s so-called “openness.”
Citing the president’s weak performance on transparency, Wonderlich said the issue is about more than the typical unfulfilled political promises.
“There’s the obvious examples, like promising (and failing) to put healthcare negotiations on C-SPAN, only to negotiate a secret agreement with a segment of the industry the reform effort sought to regulate,” Wonderlich said. “But there’s a longer pattern here too.”
In addition to Obama reversing his pledge against selling “access to the inauguration, and to the presidency, to corporate donors,” Wonderlich said the president quietly has made plans, through the formation of Organizing for Action, a new 501(c)(4) non-profit, to do that and more — all beyond the scrutiny of the public or media. Organizing for Action, Wonderlich said, will “sell direct access to the president, for huge sums of cash, which will be disclosed online, quarterly, without specific dollar figures.”
Obama certainly isn’t the only politician to use controlled information releases and avoidance of tough questions to shape public perception. (The Herald has been critical of state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, for using the same tactics in an attempt to manipulate coverage.) But the president campaigned on the idea of openness and continues to espouse his claim as the king of transparency.
“This administration loves to boast about how transparent they are, but they’re transparent about things they want to be transparent about,” Mark Knoller, a veteran CBS News reporter, told Politico. “He gives interviews not for our benefit, but to achieve his objective.”
To borrow Obama’s favorite phrase: Let us be clear, Mr. President, we aren’t buying your rhetoric.
— Tommy Felts, managing editor