After the warm glow, telling the cold, hard truths

January 30, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

The president was inaugurated in front of adoring crowds and positive reviews in the media. As the unpopular incumbent sat on the platform with him, the new Democratic chief executive took office as the nation faced a crippling economic crisis. The incoming president was a charismatic figure who had run a brilliant campaign and had handled the press with aplomb. The media were ready to give him a break.

That was 1933, and in Franklin Roosevelt’s case, the media gave him a break.

For Barack Obama, the honeymoon was shorter.

Less than 36 hours after Obama took the oath of office, the White House denied news photographers access to the new president’s do-over swearing in, instead releasing official White House photos of the event. Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse protested and refused to distribute the official photos (which nevertheless showed up on the websites of a number of large U.S. newspapers).

This is an important issue for news organisations, the public and for an administration that has promised a new era of transparency in doing the people’s business. How are people to know, for example, that the official photos haven’t been staged?

All U.S. administrations seek to manage the flow of information and the White House and the news media have a complex, interdependent relationship. Each needs the other. But it’s important that media organisations remember who’s most important.

For Howard Goller, Reuters editor for political and general news for the U.S. and Canada, it’s clear who’s most important.

“A news organisation’s first obligation is to its clients,” he says. “Our correspondents have a front-row seat at the White House, we ask questions at news conferences and briefings, and we travel with the president wherever he goes. Our photographers work just as hard for our customers. We became concerned when on taking office, the new administration prevented Reuters and other news organisations from taking our own photos. We’ve had several conversations with the new administration since those first days and we expect a more open relationship going forward.”

Most administrations get a bit of a honeymoon. Gallup polls show that every incoming, newly-elected president back to Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed majority approval ratings. Even the lowest-rated incoming presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, had job approval ratings of 51 percent and disapproval ratings of only 13 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Obama’s approval rating, 68 percent, was exceeded only by that of John F. Kennedy, who had a 72 percent rating. Even a plurality of Republicans—43 percent—give Obama positive marks.

The media have also generally been positive—or at least, not very negative– about new presidents during their administrations’ first 100 days, one of those round numbers we seem to like so much.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism compared the coverage of the two most recent first-term elected presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In measuring the tone of coverage by network television, newspapers and a major weekly news magazine, the study found that only 28 percent of the coverage of both presidents’ first two months was “negative.”

No president has been more successful at managing the media than Roosevelt. So carefully did the administration control the president’s image that only a few pictures were published in newspapers of the president—disabled by polio– using his wheelchair. Indeed, in a scene in the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942),” James Cagney was able with a straight face to portray Roosevelt in a song and dance number, as the “president” wittily told reporters what was on and what was off the record.

Betty Houchin Winfield, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, argues in “FDR and the News Media” that “FDR’s consummate news management skills served as a major key to his political artistry and leadership legacy” and that “a strong president such as Roosevelt can indeed influence the journalists’ newsgathering, the reporters’ reactions, and the final news stories.”

As Douglas McCollam notes in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, many believe much of the media are already in the tank for Obama.

A Pew Research Center poll during the heat of the campaign in September 2008 found that 36 percent of those questioned believed news organisations were biased in favor of Obama, while only 14 percent said the media were biased in favor of Republican John McCain. Forty percent detected no bias. A Rasmussen poll last summer was even more stark, with 49 percent saying they believed most reporters would “try to help the Democrat with their coverage.” Just 14 percent believed reporters would try to help McCain win and only 24 percent believed that “most reporters will try to offer unbiased coverage.”

Those are depressing numbers for a journalist to read—and the only way to respond is to aggressively cover the issues that matter to your audience.

For Reuters News, that’s a global audience and a financial audience.

Goller says that in response to the change in administrations, “We have made some big changes, especially in the way we work together to cover the big economic stories in the face of the financial crisis as well as the politics of climate change and health care….We’ve put more people on both the White House and the Congressional beats in part because the president…has promised change and both he and the Democratic-led Congress have made a priority of addressing the crisis, no small matter for our core financial clients.”

So how do we balance the need to be close to the newsmakers at the White House with the danger of being in a bubble where news can be managed?

Goller puts it well: “For Reuters, the key is to keep our eye on the issues, and that means to be aware of the impact a president’s words and actions or non-actions have on business, the economy, other countries and Americans as a people. We ask the tough questions in the briefings—and in the stories we write. If we don’t get the answers, our stories say so. This is our job.”

As in coverage of the Middle East, there are partisans who will never, ever be convinced that journalists can report objectively. As in the coverage of the recent Gaza fighting, all we can ask our audience to do is judge us on the journalism we produce—and tell us when we’re wrong.

It’s especially important now, as coverage of the new administration moves out of the warm, feel-good glow of the inauguration. As we saw Wednesday, the stimulus bill passed the House without a single Republican vote, a reminder of the deep divisions that remain and a sign that the story of the Obama administration is just beginning. It will be up to the hard-nosed, experienced journalists in Washington to push beyond the soft, easy, feel-good stories and tell the hard and complete truth.

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