The Media Today

Barack Obama’s complicated media-criticism tour

November 17, 2020

As you may have noticed, Barack Obama has a book out today. It’s a memoir, titled A Promised Land, that runs to more than seven-hundred pages and is still only a first volume—covering the period from Obama’s childhood to the raid, in 2011, that killed Osama bin Laden. Originally, Obama planned to write a shorter, single volume, but he ended up grappling with a surfeit of good material and with a desire to offer both rich historical detail and a compelling narrative; as he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “there are parts of the book where I just had a really nice description I wanted to leave in and the editor was like, ‘Do we really need this, like, do we really?’ and I said, ‘Eh, I like it, sorry. That’s just a pretty description and I want to leave it.’” Online, every writer related and every editor winced. “Kill your darlings,” Seyward Darby, the editor in chief of the Atavist Magazine, advised. “It’s liberating, I promise.”

Ahead of publication day, the former president embarked on a media tour, coverage of which has, implicitly and often explicitly, provided a marked contrast with the behavior of the soon-to-be-former president. Interviewers have asked Obama to weigh in on Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and the state of the country generally; in his answers, Obama has emphasized the centrality of America’s polarized information ecosystem in putting Trump in the White House and bolstering his unhinged claim that he gets to stay there. As Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, put it, “In every interview, Obama is talking about media.”

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When Gayle King, of CBS News, asked Obama what he thought Trump’s strong election performance said about America, he replied, “The power of that alternative worldview that’s presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight.” He elaborated to Michel Martin, of NPR: “If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read the New York Times, and that didn’t use to be as stark because you had local newspapers and you had people overlapping in terms of where they got information”; when you see social-media “rabbit holes that people are following, the denial of facts, the belief in wild conspiracy theories like QAnon getting real traction,” he added, “each of us have some responsibilities to start thinking carefully about not being so gullible and just accepting whatever it is that we’re seeing pop up on our phones.” Speaking with David Olusoga, of the BBC, Obama called for supply-side fixes, too: “a combination of regulation and standards within industries to get us back to the point where we at least recognise a common set of facts before we start arguing about what we should do about those facts.” And he told Goldberg that “we don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.”

While Obama’s emphasis here has mostly been on right-wing media and the structures that allow it to flourish, he hasn’t spared mainstream media. He told Martin, of NPR, that he decided to close his book with the bin Laden raid not as a note of unalloyed triumph, but to contrast what he calls “the serious work of government” with a news cycle that was—at the same moment and across “every major media outlet”—saturated with coverage of Trump’s birther lies. “Some of the same people who later on would sort of decry Donald Trump and his very flimsy attachment to the truth were the same people who gave Donald Trump a big platform during this period,” Obama said. Indeed, according to Michael Kranish, of the Washington Post, Obama’s “grievances with the media are a constant theme” of the book, which takes aim, in part, at liberal pundits who Obama feels did not understand the need for compromise. “This is what separates even the most liberal writers from their conservative counterparts,” he writes (apparently of a HuffPost article that quoted him correctly): “the willingness to flay politicians on their own side.”

Even if one accepts the broad truth of this assertion, it doesn’t follow that this is a bad thing: a willingness to criticize your own side looks, to me, like a crucial guardrail against the toxic information environment that Obama accurately describes. In general, his media criticism certainly merits a hearing. But it must also be weighed against his actual record on journalistic matters—a record that, as CJR chronicled, is hardly glowing. Obama pledged to run the most transparent administration in history, but then oversaw highly-secretive policies around drone strikes, mass surveillance, and more; his officials also prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than any prior administration, and subpoenaed the journalist Jim Risen (the Justice Department eventually dropped the subpoena, but not before it had persuaded an appeals court to gut reporters’ privileges vis-à-vis their sources) and the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press. (As Ramya Krishnan and Trevor Timm reported last year in CJR, officials considered subpoenaing records from the Times, the Post, and ABC at the same time, but ultimately decided against doing so.) Obama did not, as president, meaningfully crack down on the Big Tech firms whose platforms he now perceives as a danger to democracy; on the whole, his administration was friendly toward them. Nor (despite the urgings of Dan Rather) did his administration prioritize structural support for the news business—a victim of the financial crash that did not, unlike the auto or banking industries, get a big bailout.

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We must recognize, too, that Obama’s diagnosis of our warped information climate—while accurate in many urgent respects—does not come from a dispassionate or post-ideological place. Another excerpt from his Atlantic interview is telling in this regard. Addressing the erosion of a shared factual reality, he told Goldberg that, in the past, “part of the common narrative was a function of the three major networks and a handful of papers that were disproportionately influential. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things.”

The internet-age proliferation and splintering that Obama describes here has indeed helped entrench partisanship. It has also, however, led to an efflorescence of voices and perspectives that simply weren’t heard in the era of three networks and a handful of papers, and that have expanded the national conversation, not least as it pertains to big policy stuff. Weakening the grip of establishment gatekeepers has had costs, but it has also had clear benefits. To be useful, the present debate about the state of the media industry must address both—tackling the creation of “different realities,” but also diversifying and expanding our understanding of actual reality. The notion of a “common narrative” channels an ideology of consensus that often elides who gets to do the narrative building. Walter Cronkite nostalgia can only carry us so far.

Below, more on Obama and the election:

  • The launch: As CNN’s Stelter reports, Obama’s media tour isn’t confined to outlets in the US. In addition to his BBC interview, Obama will also be speaking with the Bertelsmann Media Network and ZDF, in Germany; the Globo Network, in Brazil; Nieuwsuur, in the Netherlands; and France 2. According to the Times, Crown, which is publishing the book, is printing 3.4 million copies for the North American market and a further 2.5 million to be distributed internationally, and demand may still outstrip supply. Many booksellers, who have struggled amid the pandemic, see the memoir as a possible lifeline for their businesses. (Obama has also compiled a playlist to go with the book. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Sinatra, and Springsteen all feature.)
  • Losing the war: Joe Biden may have won the election, but—as Lachlan Markay, Hanna Trudo, and Sam Stein report for the Daily Beast—Democratic operatives agree that the party is losing the war online, particularly when it comes to “building the type of news and organic content ecosystem that can match the scale that currently exists on the right.” Some operatives favor fighting fire with fire, but others “think the onus right now has to be on counteracting and limiting the reach of the false and misleading information spreading on social media networks.”
  • Winning the war?: Tommy Vietor, a former Obama staffer and current host of the liberal podcast Pod Save America, writes, for Crooked Media, that the incoming Biden administration should not repeat the Obama administration’s “mistake” of feeling pressured to treat Fox News as a “legitimate news organization.” Instead, Vietor argues, Biden’s team should “call Fox what it is: an extension of the Republican Party” and simultaneously “develop closer ties with progressive outlets like The Nation, the Young Turks, and yes, Crooked Media. Give them scoops and access and grow their audiences and influence the way Trump’s team has nurtured fringe rags like Newsmax and OAN.”
  • The transition: Michelle Obama is back in the news, too. Yesterday, she slammed Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, on Instagram for refusing to concede defeat. “Donald Trump had spread racist lies about my husband that had put my family in danger,” Michelle Obama wrote, of her own decision to welcome Melania Trump to the White House in 2016. “That wasn’t something I was ready to forgive. But I knew that, for the sake of our country, I had to find the strength and maturity to put my anger aside.”

Other notable stories: 

  • In an editor’s note for CJR’s new magazine on this transitional moment for journalism, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, makes the case that the media industry “needs to be rebuilt and reconceived.” Also for the magazine, Leah Sottile profiles the “first responder” journalists who covered this summer’s protests in Portland, Oregon. “Those consistently putting themselves in danger to provide the best accounts of the scene were, by and large, the same people whose identity made them most vulnerable to violence at the hands of the state and society,” Sottile writes; people “who, because of their age, race, education, or identity, tended to face barriers to jobs at legacy media outlets.”
  • Yesterday, the drug-maker Moderna claimed, based on an early analysis of trial data, that the COVID-19 vaccine it has been developing is nearly ninety-five-percent effective. The news came one week after the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech announced similarly positive early data—although, as STAT reports, it’s not yet clear how long immunity from the two vaccines will last, and both Pfizer and Moderna disclosed their findings via press release, and not in a peer-reviewed medical journal. (ICYMI, I explored coverage of the Pfizer vaccine in this newsletter last week.)
  • On Sunday, Patricia Escárcega, a food critic at the LA Times, wrote on Twitter that the paper pays her significantly less than it pays Bill Addison, her white male co-critic, and that bosses rejected a discrimination complaint filed through her union. The LA Times told LA Magazine that Escárcega’s pay is “well above the scale for her job classification and experience,” and that Addison earns more because he has “significantly more experience” and “has won one of the most significant awards in food journalism.”
  • In media-jobs news, Caitlin Dickerson, who covers immigration for the New York Times, is moving to cover the same beat at The Atlantic. Elsewhere, Axios appointed Russell Contreras, who previously covered race and ethnicity for the AP, as its justice and race reporter. And James Hohmann, who writes the Washington Post’s flagship politics newsletter, The Daily 202, will migrate to the paper’s opinion section as a columnist.
  • Corey Hutchins, of the Colorado Independent, profiles the News Station, a digital outlet founded by Peter Marcus, a former reporter who now works as the comms director for a cannabis company. Under its managing editor, Matt Laslo, the site, which now operates independently of the cannabis company, covers drug policy among other topics, and is working to publish writers who are incarcerated or experiencing homelessness.
  • In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a publicly-funded watchdog, said that it found no evidence of illegal gender-based pay discrimination at the BBC. A group representing women working at the broadcaster criticized the inquiry, noting that the EHRC reviewed just ten pay complaints out of a thousand filed. Carrie Gracie, a former staffer who was given back pay by the BBC, called the inquiry “a whitewash.”
  • Maia Sandu, a pro-European liberal, has been elected as the first female president of Moldova, unseating the incumbent, Igor Dodon, who closely aligned himself with Vladimir Putin and Russia. During the campaign, Sandu said that she was targeted by a Russian disinformation campaign, and told Anna Nemtsova, of the Daily Beast, that Dodon weaponized a “bombardment of fake news” against her candidacy.
  • And Quartz claims to have had its “best week ever for membership” after Zach Seward, the site’s co-founder and CEO, announced plans to buy it from Uzabase, its Japanese owner, and turn it into an independent media company. Quartz says that it added nearly 1,200 new members last week, and now has more than twenty-five-thousand in total.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.