Articles

When Politicians Loathe The Press

May 20, 2015

Most politicians occasionally get upset at the media. But few demonstrate as much contempt for journalists as do Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Sometimes it appears they’d prefer a state-run media rather than a free press.

For example, last week at a Georgetown University conference on poverty, President Obama indulged in a favorite pastime: attacking Fox News (for which I am a political contributor). Mr. Obama asserted that stories suggesting “the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work” are a “constant menu” on the cable news channel. Of course that isn’t true, but how would he know? Does anyone believe Mr. Obama is a regular Fox viewer? 

Nevertheless, the president has attempted to delegitimize Fox since he took office. In an October 2009 CNN interview, then-White House communications chief Anita Dunn said, “Let’s not pretend they’re a news network.” A year later in Rolling Stone, Mr. Obama questioned the patriotism of all who work at Fox by saying the channel has a “point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of the country.”

It is unseemly for any president to offer such personal criticism of a news outlet. No other chief executive in the past 40 years has done it. This administration has also made extensive efforts to bypass the press altogether by holding news conferences less frequently than the last three presidents, announcing news via social media, restricting pool reporters’ access to presidential events and appearances, and supplying video and photos shot by White House staff in lieu of giving access to news photographers. All of this to get Mr. Obama’s message directly to voters without having to go through troublesome journalists.

Then there’s Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday a super PAC supporting her called “Correct The Record,” stung by criticism that she had fielded only eight questions from the press since becoming a candidate April 12, released a list of 20—yes, 20!—questions that she answered from voters. But these questioners were carefully screened in advance by her political staff, so she faced hardballs like “What were your policies that you have for children with disabilities?” or curveballs such as “The insurance companies now, do they compete across state lines?”

“Correct the Record” reports that in return Mrs. Clinton asked voters 117 questions. These include such important queries related to the national interest as “So how did you end up here?” and “Why don’t we start with you, Brendan?” and my favorite, “When is your bowling alley open?” The super PAC said these gems showed Mrs. Clinton “is displaying the qualities of a true leader.”

The “Correct the Record” defense reads like a parody. It was so atrocious, it may have had something to do with Mrs. Clinton’s taking six new questions from the press later that day after prodding by Fox’s Ed Henry.

Yet she dodged the first question, about the Clinton Foundation’s receiving foreign donations while she was secretary of state; ignored the second, on whether we would be better off with Saddam Husseinin power; mentioned her granddaughter without answering the third, on whether everyday people could relate to someone like her in the top 1%; brushed off the fourth, an inquiry about memos that longtime Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal sent her on Libya; and replied to the fifth and sixth, about her use of a private server to handle official emails, by saying “nobody has a bigger interest in getting them released than I do.” It was a tour de force of misdirection and insolence in less than five minutes.

Here, then, is a tale of two strategies. President Obama targets elements of the media; Hillary Clinton runs from all of it. He becomes indignant when questioned or challenged; she treats journalists as stalkers, even though their questions are about public matters.

Both feel treated unfairly, though in reality most reporters generally give Democrats and liberals more patience and less hostility than they do Republicans and conservatives. It is human nature to go easier on one’s own kind. As a result, when Mr. Obama assaults Fox News, many elite journalists may be secretly cheering him on.

Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton want to avoid being held accountable, yet the press is supposed to do just that. With a few significant and courageous exceptions, reporters covering the president and the former secretary of state appear to have convinced themselves they cannot do more. What we are witnessing reveals much that is disturbing about the president and his pretender and about the practices of those who cover them. 

A version of this article appeared May 21, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline When Politicians Loathe The Press and online at WSJ.com.

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