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.
.@PressSec condemns anonymous sources. Just arriving in email: White House invitation to reporters for call with anonymous admin officials.— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) July 21, 2014
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 sentiment. The 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.