Even President Obama thinks his relationship with the American media is reaching troubling levels of coziness for a democracy with a supposedly free press.
At last weekend's Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner in Washington he joked that during a sleepless night grappling with a problem "I rolled over and asked [NBC "Nightly News" anchorman] Brian Williams what he thought."
The bada-bing drum roll for that joke was drowned out by self-conscious laughter from an audience that began the night with a cartoon tribute to the President as a Super Hero able to leap tall buildings and zoom across the globe to defeat evil pirates.
The president drew more nervous laughs from the media when he said he didn't mind attending the dinner because "why bother hanging out with celebrities when I can spend time with the people who made me one."
It's time for the press to stop being Obama's toady and treat him with the seriousness he deserves. So far, it's Hollywood on the Potomac all the time for Obama but at some point the press has got to get back to covering him as a serious, political leader. That means covering the manipulations, the flip flops, the failures of the administration. -- Instead of covering him like "Entertainment Tonight" they've got to start covering him more like a reality show -- one like "Jon & Kate." Ultimately, while the administration might be happy with their strategy at the moment, over time the press will lose its credibility and the Obama White House will have no way to deliver important messages to the American people.
Last week the Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik wrote that "the best measure of how compliant mainstream TV press has become is Obama's complaint about having 'one television station ... entirely devoted to attacking,' his administration." Zurawik chided the President for not just coming out and bashing the Fox News Channel by name but then added:
"Given all the reckless and irresponsible words uttered by the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity," Zurawik concluded, "I hesitate to write these words, but good for Fox. It must be doing something right, if it has the President complaining about the tiny bit of scrutiny he gets on TV." The headline on the story read: "Time for TV Press to Quit Being Used by Obama."
A similarly upset Phil Bronstein, editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a few weeks ago that the print press, notably the New York Times, has been spending too little time on actual reporting and too much time on stories such as the features "swooning" over the First Couple having a date night. "You can't blame powerful people for wanting to play the press ..." Bronstein wrote, "but you can blame the press ... for being played."
Zurawik was prompted to write about the less than adversarial coverage of the White House after ABC announced it is taking its relationship with the First Celebrity or President to another unprecedented level by handing the Obama media team an hour of prime time for a "Town Hall." The broadcast, from the White House, will focus on the President's attempt to change the American health care system. This comes on top of a Business and Media Institute study that found ABC's news coverage of the heath care issue since the inauguration featured the President and proponents of his positions on health care three times more than critics of his proposals.
ABC is following the successful model of NBC which broadcast two nights of prime time programming taking viewers inside the Obama White House. Those shows got top ten ratings for NBC with 9 million people watching each program. CBS is also jumping into the game with special White House interviews with the president.
As a matter of business it is clear that President Obama sells magazines, newspapers and attracts television audiences. He makes money for publishers and broadcasters because he is very popular.
And, not only is he popular, especially when compared to his predecessor, but President Obama is also an effective political communicator. His speeches are intelligent, his humor disarming. His is a tremendous story of personal growth and achievement -- and he has already turned his life story into two best-selling books.
He used that communications arsenal as part of a well-run campaign that broke barriers to elect him to a first term with more than 50 percent of the vote -- the first president to enter office with a clear majority of votes since 1988 -- as well as to overcome any reservations about putting the first African-American in the Oval Office.
And now his communications staff has leveraged the public's fascination with the president as celebrity to get the positive coverage politicians crave as well as to get the president an unbelievable amount of free air time to make his case on the most highly rated shows.
That is the business of modern politics and media. It is the intersection that Mike Deaver mastered as the Reagan White House's media guru by creating media strategies such as giving interviews to local anchors in order to avoid more critical exchanges with the Washington based correspondents who covered the White House daily. Deaver similarly made an art of putting Reagan, the actor turned politician who was celebrated as "The Great Communicator," into beautiful backdrops and in front of select audiences to limit the power of a critical press corps. In covering the president the networks and newspapers had no choice but to include Deaver's carefully crafted images and messages. That strategy changed shifted the power balance between an aggressive press corps that wanted to get the next Watergate scandal into a servile press corps pandering to the White House to gain access to the president.
The Obama White House has taken those lessons in White House stagecraft to new heights. Beginning with last year's presidential campaign they made deft use of the Internet to organize their political operations and raise money but also to manage the candidate's message and image. That has carried over to the White House where a recent Pew Poll found that President Obama's coverage has been far more favorable during his first 100 days in office than President Bush or President Clinton.
The unique element in President Obama's media management playbook has been his ability to use his celebrity to overwhelm coverage of his politics and policies.
The Pew study concluded that half of all the stories done about President Obama focused on his "personal and leadership qualities" as opposed to his policies. President Bush and President Clinton had only about a quarter of their coverage devoted to non-political news.
The bottom line for a former newspaper editor like Bronstein of The Chronicle is simple. He wrote: "So far, this [media coverage of President Obama] is all about image and character and press "opportunities'" ... but with [big] money at stake and crazy people with nukes bristling from around the edges of the world, we can't afford not to keep a closer eye on the substance thing."
But the fact that the press is distracted from its job to hold any and every president to account will come as no surprise to anyone who has walked into an airport news stand over the last year of political campaigns and the start of the new presidency. Except for the stack of candy bars and paperback thrillers it was easy to think you had entered a shrine to Barak Obama. Now that might sound like hyperbole even if you knew that Newsweek has run 19 covers featuring the new president.
But the magazine world's love affair with the president went from suspicion to fact earlier this month when the American Society of Magazine Editors had to create an entirely new category for it annual competition to award the best magazine cover of the year.
The new category for cover art excellence is simply called: "Best Obama."