The Difference Between Nixon and Obama News Reporting

The Atlantic offers an astute assessment of Richard Nixon’s media machine and how other presidents adopted or adapted the playbook. The story, one of many during the 40th anniversary year of resignation, is a must-read for journalists, particularly those covering politics.

I am a long-standing critic of the current administration’s aggressive, anti-media tactics. The Nixon and Obama White Houses share in common a general disregard for the Fourth Estate. Interference in the newsgathering process is commonplace and extends beyond the White House.

Barack “Nixon” Obama
In The Atlantic story, Jon Marshall, author of Watergate’s Legacy and the Press, observes:

The Obama White House has also threatened to prosecute journalists who don’t cooperate with its investigations into information leaks. So far it has pursued criminal charges in eight cases against whistleblowers, five more than all previous presidents combined. As a result, government workers increasingly fear talking with reporters, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report.

Last month the Society of Professional Journalists sent Obama a letter requesting (you don’t demand of presidents) “you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so”. Among SPJ’s concerns:

In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others—lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money without these controls and without public oversight.

The problem isn’t who doesn’t have access but who does. You have a secretive administration, which news media tactics are adversarial (including to whistleblowers), while embracing influencers who operate behind closed doors with little scrutiny. That, my friends, is not transparent government.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Federal lobbying spending year to date (July 28) is $1,623,944,917, or a little less than all 2001. Last year: $3.4 billion. Overall spending is down from 2009, which makes sense given the push to make inroads into a new government versus one approaching the White House’s end of term.

Apple-a-Day Keeps Journalists Away
Nixon isn’t the only model here. On this blog in April 2010, I observed:

There are striking similarities in the marketing habits of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and President Obama. Both run organizations that exact tight control over messaging, restrict press access to information and effectively use aspirational marketing to inspire people. Coincidence? I think not.

What The Atlantic story leaves out, and perhaps the book doesn’t (I will read it, but haven’t yet): How Nixon pioneered the art of the leak to advance agendas. Apple adopts, or did under the late-Jobs, similar strategy.

  • Keep secrets
  • Disclose information to those most likely to write favorably
  • Selectively leak crucial information when there is urgent objective to achieve

Secrets and selective access are in tandem powerful tools for manipulating the free press. By limiting access, the information spigot squeezes shut. Selective access discourages those who have it from being too adversarial, for fear of being cut off. Selective leaks—scoops—to those who have limited access but write for influential news outlets pumps out the message the leaker wants in absence of much other information. There are very good reasons I say that reporters should always ask “Who benefits?”, particularly for information coming from leaked sources. (For more, see my book: Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers.)

The Obama Administration uses social media, talk shows, or other controlled settings to pump out positive messages—all while blocking the free press. Apple advertises, and maintains a news media “no comment” policy. For the tech company, the practice is good business. I suppose someone argues similar approach is good politics. But is it good government?

Writers for Netflix series “House of Cards” should use Obama media tactics as model for Frank Underwood’s presidency. From the opening season’s first episode, media manipulation played a central role. Underwood used selective leaks to a young, hungry reporter to advance agendas. There was mutual benefit; the scoops propelled her career. Now, in the forthcoming third season, that Underwood is president, media scrutiny is assured. How should he deal with an adversarial press?  Ask Barack Obama.

Unforeseen Consequences
I have long puzzled over Republican success with its “Party of No” strategy. I couldn’t see sense in irrational resistance but understand the dynamics now. The media’s role cannot be understated. Three things:

  1. The Fourth Estate has a long tradition of emphasizing conflict, and the tit-for-tat spats provide much of it. Republicans are assured press coverage simply by taking opposing positions. Marketers know: There is no bad news. Any is eventually good.
  2. Journalists are supposed to be impartial, but, hey, they have feelings too. If you think some reporters don’t stab back at Obama administration stonewalling, with Republicans the serrated edge, you live in la-la land.
  3. The Obama Administration’s silence must be filled with something. The Repubs give good access, and too often the talking points or quotables are irresistible. Something else: Smart Washington journalists know that relationships matter. Those they make now will mean access later should voters throw Democrats to the curb—or into oncoming traffic.

For all the Obama Administration seemingly gains shutting out the free press, the opposing party benefits as much. Perhaps even more. In the Apple analogy, bloggers, journalists, and social sharers fill the absence of information with rumors. That’s irresponsible reporting, but widespread. In Washington, the opposing party provides news when the ruling one doesn’t. Think about it.

The Democratic leadership might want to take a look at the administration’s media polices and ask how secrecy and selective disclosure benefit the Republican cause. I take no political sides here. Both parties drive my sensibilities nuts. Mine is a pragmatic observation. Nature abhors a vacuum, and news is a void that must be filled with something.

Time To Take Responsibility
Make no mistake. I don’t blame Barack Obama for anything. He lives by a worldview about politics that sees the free press as adversarial to republican government. The ultimate responsibility, and failure, lies with the Fourth Estate.

Nixon Administration tactics didn’t stop two Washington Post reporters from uncovering the Watergate scandal, which proved to be much, much bigger than a break-in. The question to ask: Did the Post serve or work against the public interest by undermining the Nixon Administration? My answer probably differs from many politicians. But that’s the point about differing worldviews.

In many regards, Washington’s coolness to the free press in 2014 isn’t much different from 1974. But I ask: Where are the Watergate hounds today? A year ago, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bozos bought the Washington Post, I requested:

Put in editors and reporters who will investigate and report with vigor. The U.S. government is paralyzed; just look at the House of Representatives and Senate, which seemingly can’t agree on anything. Where are the investigative reports that expose corruption and hold every elected or appointed official accountable?..

The Fourth Estate has failed its public trust. Should I pay the Guardian around $18 per month for real news reporting about Washington, rather than get the Washington Post? That’s the scenario I see. Mr. Bezos, give people something they can’t help reading, by making real reporting top priority no matter the risk. Is that too much for an American to ask?

Two days later, in post “Take Back the Facts“, I once again laid out the sorry state of the Fourth Estate, which spends too much time chasing the Google free economy and too little time pursuing news stories. Readership matters more than pageviews, something too many publishers and editors have lost sight of.

Good journalism is hard, investigative work. Real reporting means knocking on doors to find sources who are accountable to you, not referring to those anonymously cited by a blogger who are accountable to no one.

SPJ’s letter is admission of defeat—that the Obama Administration’s tactics are effective. That’s the difference between Nixon and Obama news reporting.

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