Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No More Freedom of the Press?

Unfortunately, much of my "blogging" these days takes place on Facebook (under Ed Hanks), and so it doesn't appear here. But every once in a while a fascinating discussion comes along which deserves to be here too. Here's one about Obama and Freedom of the Press, along with some commentary, and my response.

I then posted a link to an article about how the White House Communications Director was "explaining" (bragging) that Obama's press office "controlled" the media.

Now, as a former Speechwriter and Press Secretary, I'm very well aware that this is the ideal goal of any press secretary -- to "control" what the media says about their candidate or official. But I felt this went a step too far.

A man named David Guenthner, a former reporter and longtime PR professional who's currently Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, responded. I hope he doesn't mind my hijacking his words -- they WERE posted on MY Facebook page, so I feel entitled. Besides, in the thread of comments I ended up agreeing with him, to a large degree, and he posted that he agreed with me. So this is more education than debate, fueled by two PR hands...

David's Comment:
This is much ado about very little. What's discussed as "control" in the headline and the quote is actually message discipline. If you're in a prominent enough position where you have reporters dedicated to covering you (e.g., president or governor), it is your job to put your guy and your story of the day in the news to the greatest extent possible. Limiting access and the number of people authorized to speak on behalf of the administration or the campaign is an appropriate tactic -- and can be effective unless it is overused.

My Response:

David, you're a PR professional, and so you know what you're talking about. I've been a PR professional too, and I understand exactly what you mean, and I agree so far as that goes.

But Obama has crossed a line, and camped out there, where no one before has had the nerve or disregard of press freedom to camp. Clinton did use this tactic to great effect at times, but only for limited projects or periods of time. The press wouldn't let him get away with it. The fact that Helen Thomas (of ALL people!) identified and expressed shock at the Obama Administration's behavior is a sign that it's not business as usual -- not normal political hardball, but a crossing of the Rubicon -- because it's become policy.

Obama's Administration has determined that anyone who doesn't cooperate gets locked out. The press is already half-willing to let this happen. They're addicted. If they don't have that constant hourly news-feed, they can't feed the people. So they're at Obama's mercy, to a point. Obama's feeling his way with this, and if we allow him to get away with it, there is a serious possibility it could morph into a de facto loss of freedom of the press. State control of the mass media, even if there's no way they can control alternative or web media.

But just wait... Obama's reputed to be working on ways to control web media, too! And conservative radio! And if he has those, he's got mass media AND alternative media under state control. Very dangerous, even if it seems "natural" to trained media professionals like you and me who've become inured to hardball politics.


Then, David posted this thoughtful link to a Newsbusters story:

A great exchange, all around!

EDIT (additional thoughts from me, on this point):

I'm reminded of how things have changed in the Senate, with regard to court appointments.

Time was, the President's nominees to the federal bench, Supreme Court or otherwise, received 100 out of 100 votes. To see otherwise was an exception to the rule.

The way they were to be judged was on the basis of whether they were qualified. Whether or not the senator agreed with the nominee on political issues was NOT to be the basis for determining a yes or no vote. That just wasn't done, as the court was meant to be non-factional and non-partisan (though that was a polite fiction, starting even from the early days of the Republic).

With the most obvious exception of Felix Frankfurter, I believe, in FDR's time, this was the way the Senate operated up until about Pres. Reagan's time (if there are previous signal examples, I'm not aware of them). It was then, with nominees like Bork and Thomas, when the Democrats first inserted political aims into the nomination process, and they've kept it up ever since (and the Republicans have joined in, after the fact, though to hear the media talk the Republicans started it).

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I don't think the non-partisan process did Republicans any good. Look at O'Connor, and the fact that 90% of GOP appointees to the federal bench are pro-abortion, and not very conservative in any respect. I believe judges should be chosen not because they are "qualified" (i.e. can apply precedent and follow process -- that's a system that has ill served champions of justice and truth), but because they have the courage to choose rightly what will serve justice. But that's beside the point for this discussion.

I mention this example here simply because it's analogous -- this was "standard ethical practice" in government, up until someone was willing to violate the process and insert politics into a supposedly non-political system. Obama has now taken this same step in his relationship to the news media. "Pay to Play" so to speak.

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