How a new Washington stifles a new political press

As political PR machines become more sophisticated and aggressive, journalists need to rethink how they cover government

The video featured all the trappings of a heartwarming human interest piece: uplifting piano music, a hometown angle, and a main character named Earnest. Released by the White House last week, the four-minute film shows Press Secretary Josh Earnest, a Kansas City native, inviting four locals to dinner with President Barack Obama. More than 42,000 viewers watched the clip as of Wednesday morning—small potatoes by mainstream media standards, but a sizeable total nonetheless.

The YouTube clip, a new flavor of White House press release, illustrates how easy it is for politicians to circumvent journalists en route to mass audiences. And it came during a tumultuous summer in media-government relations, as heightened tensions have increasingly devolved into open clashes on airwaves and in print. On Tuesday, for example, after learning that The Intercept planned to run a story on the growth of the US terrorism database, the National Counterterrorism Center shared select information with the Associated Press, which ran its decidedly less comprehensive piece minutes before The Intercept published.

Friction between reporters and government is inherent in journalism. Yet it has reached a fever pitch Washington, many journalists and experts say—former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson this year called the Obama administration “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.” And that Beltway intensity is trickling down to state and local governments. Reporters at all levels battle increasingly restricted access as political PR machines grow more sophisticated and aggressive.

Nearly three of four journalists who cover the federal government believe public information officers are tightening press controls, according to a study to be presented Wednesday at a conference for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. More than three quarters of local, state, and national political reporters, meanwhile, said the public is not getting the full truth because of it. And about 40 percent of public information officers surveyed admitted they deny specific reporters access.

“That horrified us that so many would do that,” Kennesaw State University professor and study author Carolyn Carlson said. The decades-long professionalization of public relations has coincided with journalists’ perceived reduction in access, she added. “Twenty years ago, members of Congress might have had a press secretary, but they didn’t have an entire public relations office.”

Indeed, a July 1 USA Today analysis found that House committees had grown their PR ranks by 15 percent since 2010, despite a 20 percent overall staff cut. The following week, the Society of Professional Journalists and nearly 40 other media organizations sent a letter to the White House that called on Obama to usher in the “new era of openness” he once promised. His administration, of course, has pursued more criminal leak investigations than all previous administrations combined. 

But there’s minor cause for optimism on Pennsylvania Avenue, as Politico reported Monday. The president has taken questions from reporters about once a week over the past seven weeks, including a briefing on Friday in which he admitted that “we tortured some folks” after the September 11 attacks. Staffers trumpeted the spate of appearances as evidence of a shift in media strategy. It’s important to remember, however, that there has been plenty to comment on during that time span: deteriorating security in Iraq, Ukraine, and Israel and Gaza; souring relationships between Washington and Moscow and Jerusalem; an erupting humanitarian crisis on the Texas border. 


Behind the podium Obama on July 16 discusses violence in Israel and Gaza and ramping up sanctions against Russia in response to the situation in Ukraine (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

What’s more, the give-and-take between the administration and White House reporters goes much deeper than the president himself. After The Washington Post reported in mid-July that Obama aides had early warning of a potential border crisis, Earnest publicly lectured the Post for using anonymous sources, also calling out the paper’s White House reporter for not being in attendance at that day’s press briefing. Other reporters present, meanwhile, pointed out a familiar email that had just arrived in their inboxes: an invitation to a phone call with anonymous White House officials.

Beyond public criticism for standard reporting practices, journalists covering the White House and Capitol Hill have dealt with increased separation from even condoned interactions with officials. The Post dedicated a full story in July to “minders” sitting in on interviews, and National Journal echoed the sentimentThe Boston Globe (where I formerly covered Congress) ran a frontpage story in September devoted entirely to how Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the most popular Democrats in the country, will stop at nothing to dodge reporters in the halls of power.

Bob Cusack, who recently became editor in chief of The Hill, said press secretaries from both parties have become more aggressive in “working the refs”—that is, challenging stories that reflect negatively on their allies, and promoting those that may inflict political harm on their opponents. What’s new, he added, is politicians themselves micromanaging press relations. 

“Lawmakers are people, too,” he said. “They have Google News alerts and see everything that pops up about them…This is their life and reputation. I tell lawmakers and their staffers, ‘I’d rather you call me than privately seethe.’”

Pushback against political coverage has grown just as reporting staffs have been slashed across the industry. Myriad metro and regional newspapers shuttered their Washington bureaus due to financial hardship over the past two decades. There are simply less boots on the ground to cover government, despite the growth of Politico and others, said Michael Shanahan, a longtime political reporter (and occasional CJR contributor) who’s now a professor at George Washington University. That trend, coupled with the ability of PR footsoldiers to reach voters directly with digital tools, has tilted the balance of power away from news organizations. 

“The political reporters, and I define that broadly, are certainly not obsolete yet, but they’re a lot less important than they used to be,” Shanahan said. “If you really have something to say, you don’t have to have a conversation with a reporter.” 

Of course, politicians and staffers have every reason to act as gatekeepers for public information—a democratic election is a popularity contest, after all. And the incentive to shut out reporters has only increased over the past few decades, according to Ronald Brownstein, a former White House reporter who’s now editorial director of National Journal.

Changes in the media market, the advent of the internet foremost among them, have pushed journalists to atomize news coverage. Whereas politicians like Bill Clinton would grant reporters almost unfettered access to help them understand his strategic thinking, many today view their relationship with the press as a transaction.

“The way that Washington is dealing with the press is in some ways a rational response to the way the press is dealing with Washington,” said Brownstein, who interviewed Clinton eight times during his presidency. “From a politician’s point of view, they see less of a persuadable audience that’s being reached by the press.”

For David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, reporters still have the leverage needed to limit biased messaging. But it will require a new standard for political coverage. Journalists must not only challenge officials for live, on-the-record interviews, Cuillier said, but also simply tell readers when those requests are ignored or denied.

“The politicians need journalists more than we need them,” Cuillier said, adding that the news media is still Americans’ primary source for political information. “What if they blackball you? So what? You have to work a little harder to get the information. And frankly, that might help.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , , , , ,