PRObama Press Trades Transparency For Public Relations

By Rodney Blu

Managing Editor

“The way to make government responsible is to make it accountable and the way to make government accountable is to make it transparent.” This now infamous proverb, first uttered by a young, charismatic senator-turned-presidential hopeful from Chicago in 2008, has become increasingly referenced as of late – not in response to the fulfillment of this four-year old promise, however. No, its present relevance can be attributed to the sharpening opacity of this transparency’s limits now that President Barack Obama’s first term is dwindling to a close and his administration attempts to gain the momentum necessary for a sequel.

While the nation thrusts full-speed into election season, a deafening stillness has blanketed certain circles of the media clubhouse. The room is black and as political journalists wander about in the shadows of silence, the president has stood statuesque with his back to the switch. Throughout the current term, the press’ access to the Commander-In-Chief – particularly, media events NOT directly administered by his administration – have come few and far in between. As of May, President Obama had only held and participated in one such open press conference in the preceding six months and, in both formal and situational addresses from the White House, has allowed no option for question or discussion from members of the press and media. Even the most PRObama of us has to raise an eyebrow at this trend of reticence from the administration that asserts its openness so fervently.

And the secrecy shows no horizon. This brand of covert consortion has taken a sudden defensive undertone according to Glen Greenwald of The Guardian. Amidst the clamor surrounding the conception of a film that was to depict the president’s valor in tracking down and ultimately neutralizing the reigning hide-and-seek world champion, Osama Bin Laden, the CIA felt it in the administration’s political interest to provide otherwise classified facts and documentation regarding the seize to the filmmakers – illegally, no doubt. When word of this reached New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd, it’s understood by her colleague, National Security and Intelligence reporter Mark Mazzetti and CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf that Dowd intends to author an article detailing these executive shenanigans. Harf and Mazzetti then begin a series of conversations that eventually result in Mazzetti allowing Harf to proof the article before it’s sent to press – a faux pas in both the political and journalistic sectors. Refusing specific media access yet conducting damage-control on the free press? What’s REALLY going on?

As of February, President Obama had held 17 press conferences compared to the 31, 56 and 21 of his predecessors Clinton, H. W. Bush and Reagan, respectively, at this same point in their tenures – topping only W. Bush’s by six. Whereas former president W. Bush reined in 307 events engaging in impromptu back-and-forth with reporters, Clinton with 493, H.W. Bush with 263 and Reagan with 120, the current POTUS has conducted a mere 94. It serves to note, however, that President Obama has, in fact, provided 408 solo interviews to-date, nearly quadrupling each of the former presidents mentioned.

For many, the widening divide/increasing manipulation of the press by the Executive has gone unnoticed and that is largely due to the president’s willingness – if not preference, altogether – for his signature one-on-one sitdown conversation-style interviews, often televised or featured paperbound periodicals. Closer observations of such dialogues reveal what is already fact to many – to what manipulative extent, however most are unaware of. As stated by, when local media outlets are extended the opportunity to converse with the president, there are “no limits to the questions they can ask.” And as Mike Lopez, director at WVEC-TV Norfolk affirmed in the recollection of his one-on-one with Obama, “There were no ground rules. We were invited to the White House to talk to the president about sequestration… Since this is America, we were also allowed to ask the president about anything else we wanted to discuss.” Sounds fair, right? Yet, many journalists, in awe of this once in a lifetime opportunity to convene individually with the President of the United States are sort of star-struck out of slinging the hardball questions and the few who do inch into the unchartered territory are effortlessly detoured back onto Obama’s preferred focus with a wit and dexterity that indicates a mastery of conversation and rhetoric. Oh, he’s THAT good.

What then, leaves the world’s preeminent wordsmith so averse to the traditional press conference? I’m not so convinced that a room full of dorks like me with notepads and recorders INTIMIDATES our superstar commander-in-chief. What strikes me as peculiar is how the press has allowed the White House to continually and overtly manipulate the public image of its poster child at-will. Aside from the obvious adversaries of the administration – Republicans, the radical right and its network figureheads and what remains of the Tea Party – it seems America walks atop eggshells around criticisms of the president. What must be most important to not only the media but citizens as well, is that it’s our core democratic right to both applaud and reproach our country’s leadership in fair and honest assessment of its performance. Most recently, President Barack Obama has catered to the people of this nation and his own public image disproportionately and the American press and media – ideally, the representation of the population – has allowed this glamorization to take precedence over the honest and unrestricted transparency we were sworn. This must change and it’s going to take the man who solidified his place in front of the American people with that as his maxim as well as the pressure of a brave and unrelenting free media to bring it about a second time around.