It’s no secret that journalists, especially those on the science beat, don’t think that President Obama has lived up his lofty promise to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” So it’s understandable that many of them were downright aghast when the commander-in-chief claimed last Thursday to have done just that.
Well, actually, on a whole bunch of fronts, we’ve kept that promise. This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case—everything from every visitor who comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That is something we changed. Every law that we pass, every rule that we implement, we put online for everyone to see.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. Echoing comments that I made in 2011 about Obama’s adroit use of the Internet to create one-way flow of information, they argued that:
President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.
Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.
What was particularly galling about the hollow boast made last Thursday was that Obama was responding to a question that touched on one of the most opaque areas of his administration: the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, in the conflict zones of the Middle East and Asia. Following on the comment above, he said:
When it comes to how we conduct counterterrorism, there are legitimate questions there, and we should have that debate. And what I tried to do coming into the office was to create a legal and policy framework that respected our traditions and rule of law, but some of these programs are still classified, which meant that we might have shared them with the congressional intelligence office, but they’re not on the front of the papers.
Indeed, for the first two years of Obama’s administration, drones were able to avoid serious scrutiny in the media. That’s changed, but no thanks to the White House. According to an analysis of The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post published earlier this month by Harvard University, coverage of drone strikes nearly doubled during the Obama administration, from 326 articles in 2009 to 625 articles in 2012 (as of November).
The study, by Tara McKelvey, a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, goes into fascinating detail on the different ways that each outlet approached the story, but the kicker is this:
Few journalists considered the range of complexities of the issue during the early years of the Obama administration. They began to examine the issue in a more sophisticated manner only in the later years of Obama’s first term in office, a shift in coverage that was caused less by the passage of time than by two important events in the evolution of the drone program, the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in the fall of 2011, and a speech given by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan several months later in which he spoke about “moral questions” regarding the drone program — and coincided with an expansion of the program. These events caused a change in both the volume of coverage, which increased dramatically, and also in the tone and depth of coverage. After both of these events, journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media organizations began to write more analytical and investigative articles about the targeted-killing program, despite a reporting environment that was marked by secrecy and paranoia and by a crackdown on leaks.
David Carr wrote about the Harvard analysis in his February 10 column for the Times and highlighted some of the “remarkable” scoops achieved by his colleagues as well as reporters such as NBC News’s Michael Isikoff.
“Some 3,500 people have died in 420 strikes, and Congress has yet to hold a single public hearing on this issue,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Carr. “It has happened in the dark because we have allowed it to, and the press has far and away been the lead actor in surfacing this issue.”