BW Catches the Press Recycling Obama’s “News”

BusinessWeek has a smart piece of analysis on how the Obama administration’s message control is playing out in the press. The answer is: pretty good… for the administration.

The headline and subhed telegraph the story well:

Obama’s Team Sticks to Its To-Do List

With each “new” program on exec pay, taxes, or regulation, the Obama Administration is simply following a financial-policy plan it laid out months ago

Reporter Theo Francis (whom I’ve known since our days at The Wall Street Journal) writes, for instance, that the derivatives-regulation announcement that got big play in the press last week was not really news. Treasury Secretary Geithner announced the same thing two months ago.

There was similar this-is-news coverage of stuff that wasn’t really new on executive compensation regulation and taxes.

The press, of course, shouldn’t fall for this trick of giving the same story the “news” treatment over and over again. It plays right into the administration’s hands. But count me in on that. Just this morning I credited the Washington Post with a scoop on Obama studying a consumer-financials regulator. Turns out this is something that’s been in the works for months.

BusinessWeek puts a twist on this, though: That it illustrates how the administration is largely holding to its campaign promises.

If there’s not as much controversy to stir up on flip-flopping, the press is going to go with more of the scraps the administration throws it. They’ve got to feed the beast.

That said, the press has written almost nothing critical about how Obama lied to voters in the Midwestern states on reining in free trade. But that’s because the press is in on that one. It’s savvy and in-the-know enough to know that a smart politician like Obama was only patronizing the “populists” in flyover country to get their votes. They saw the same trick in 1992 with Bill Clinton and NAFTA.

I’ll also note, having just returned from New Orleans, that Obama isn’t doing anything for the Big Easy. As Harry Shearer pointed out the other day:

Politifact, run by the St. Petersburg Times (a reputable and non-profit newspaper), has made a handy checklist of the president’s statements on the city’s needs and his promises to help meet those needs, measured against what he’s actually proposed and/or done. It’s not surprising, at least to me, that the scoreboard contains almost all goose-eggs.

The press needs to cover this. Hold Obama’s feet to the fire on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

But that’s mostly digression. Francis is right that by and large, Obama’s promise count looks relatively good for a politician as it stands:

…Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Petersburg Times Web site that tracks how well Obama keeps his campaign promises, figures he has already kept about a quarter of them, while a little over half of the rest are “in the works,” where some factors are in the hands of Congress or otherwise out of the Administration’s control.

Reporters aren’t incentivized to play down these types of false scoops, though. They love prominently played bylines and need them for their careers. Even if something’s old news, their editors will be wondering why it’s on the front page of The New York Times while their paper doesn’t have it.

A nice “as previously announced” clause would do nicely, as would inside placement.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.