Every president tries to manage the press; some have had limited success, but no one has been quite as proficient as President Barack Obama, who in his first months has done a masterful job of keeping the Fourth Estate, if it even exists these days, off balance and frustrated.
Not since the earliest days of President John F. Kennedy's administration has a chief executive been so successful in manipulating those who report on every machination of the West Wing. Actually, Obama's keen understanding of how to maneuver through the minefield of 24-hour journalism compares with that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who so charmed a much smaller White House press corps that it never revealed he was crippled, either photographically or in print.
One need only look at his last press conference — his first in daylight — to validate that assessment. With the few hardened veterans who remain watching open-mouthed in amazement, Obama set up a scene that probably wouldn't have been possible "back in the day." He had arranged for a blogger from the Internet's Huffington Post to get a temporary press pass, told him what he wanted asked (a question from an Iranian citizen about his stance on that country's election protests) and then called on the person as though the whole thing were impromptu. Planted questions are rare, but planted questioners are unheard of. Later, correspondents went after press spokesman Robert Gibbs in what was described as a "food fight" over the incident at his regular daily briefing.
It is safe to say that had this been Obama's predecessor there would have been an enormous outcry lasting several days, if not longer. During an unusually long press conference in the Oval Office in 1965, White House correspondents complained bitterly that there were people in the room who had been prompted by President Lyndon Johnson and his staff to ask certain questions. It never happened again and the president's standing with the press took a hit.
Obama's ability to prepackage a press conference has been enhanced by the accelerating decline of the print media. Newspapers that would never have dreamed of letting a president go uncovered are now nowhere to be seen, leaving a vacuum to be filled by online reporters with only a smidgen of experience or understanding.
And while the major broadcast correspondents are still there for the time being, under the Obama rules that limit the number of questions that are allowed and the pre-selection of those who will ask them, they are marginalized. Most reporters now find themselves just window dressing for TV with no chance of getting in a question.
In the meantime, the president uses the opportunity of this staged sham to push his own agenda, filibustering some questions and refusing to answer others. The White House also exploits the TV nets and their anchors by giving them controlled access.
Before the press conference, NBC's Matt Lauer was handed the opportunity to interview Gibbs one-on-one on the likely agenda, a slightly amazing piece of business itself. Gibbs literally could have been a correspondent rather than an important White House official, standing as he was out front of the mansion fielding questions like a veteran journalist. Republicans have rightly howled that ABC's recent "promotion" of the president's health-care plan violates the tenets of balanced reporting. That network's coverage included an exclusive interview with the president and participation in a live town hall meeting on health care in the White House. The Republican National Committee argues at the very least its Democratic counterpart should pay for the airtime.
Nothing signified the end of the traditional, free-wheeling give and take of this experience more than the forlorn image of the most recognizable person outside the president at the press conference. Much-decorated Helen Thomas, formerly of United Press International and now a columnist for the Hearst newspapers, sat frail and unsmiling in the front row where she has been for decades. She tried once to get a question in only to be brushed off by Obama. A staff member even has usurped her role of thanking the president for his appearance.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.