Presidential-Media Relations

There’s been a lot of fussing lately about President Trump’s treatment of the media.  Oh my, he’s been “combative” and called them “fake news!”  He’s called them out on their negative reporting and spinning of what he says and does — how dare he?!  But as PragerU put it, “Americans should prefer a president who fights with the press than gets in bed with it.”

A year ago (Jan. 3, 2016), the New York Times reported on Obama’s “off-record” meetings with journalists in Calculated Candor Inside Obama’s Off-the-Record Briefings:

What none of the journalists told readers, because they had promised the White House that they would not, was that their attempts to portray the president’s intentions had followed a lengthy and secret meeting with Mr. Obama the day he delivered the speech.

Technically off the record, the president’s extended conversation in the Roosevelt Room that afternoon with 18 prominent columnists was part of a White House tradition aimed at influencing Washington thought leaders without leaving fingerprints — and without fear that an offhand comment from the commander in chief would spark the latest social media firestorm.

These presidential briefings are “a way for people to be able to set aside the urgency of supplying the latest quote from the president of the United States and sit back and listen to the broader argument,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. He declined to comment on the participants or the content of the discussions.

Mr. Earnest said the unannounced sessions with the president allowed Mr. Obama to speak more candidly than he can in public, especially about issues that defy easy answers. Columnists who have attended one of the more than a dozen private meetings with the president in the last seven years are directed not to quote him, disclose what was discussed or use the information they gleaned in further reporting. The attendees are not allowed to even acknowledge that the discussion took place.

But those restrictions, if followed literally, would serve little purpose for the president and his aides, who are eager to make sure his views are written about with what they consider the proper depth and context.

And so the most Washington of games goes on: Columnists, including several who write for The New York Times, get to describe the president’s thinking with confidence and authority, while Mr. Obama can hold forth at length with deniability. The White House holds far fewer private presidential briefings for news reporters who cover the White House.

***

The current White House is not unique in using secret presidential face time to try to influence coverage. Previous presidents of both parties regularly invited columnists to the White House for off-the-record sessions. But Mr. Obama is the first president to publish White House visitor logs that document who attends the discussions. It is now possible to match up the columnist briefings with the columns that result.

***

Liberal-leaning columnists from newspapers tend to dominate at Mr. Obama’s secret sessions, but the White House has invited some new-media journalists, and prominent conservatives have attended as well. In 2013, Mr. Obama invited five conservatives to a Roosevelt Room discussion.

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