Politics

05.29.13

A Bad Relationship: How the Press Came To Love Obama More Than Itself

As the scandals pile up, the press keeps finding excuses for the president, writes Stuart Stevens.

In Dan Brown’s new novel, Inferno, the lead character is struck with amnesia, unable to remember critical events even as he’s trying to save the world. Let’s borrow that useful plot device and imagine if American journalists woke up and couldn’t remember who was president. It would be interesting to ask them a few questions:  

What would you think of a president under whom the IRS targeted his harshest political opponents, during his reelection campaign?

What would you think of a president whose obsession with leaks and secrecy was so great that he used the Justice Department to obtain phone records of reporters, in violation of Justice’s established procedure?

What would you think of a president whose head of the Department of Justice signed a criminal warrant against a leading journalist working for the news organization most critical of the president—and monitored the movements of the journalist and even went after his mother’s phone records?

What would you think of an administration that directed the president’s press secretary repeatedly to deliver false information concerning the death of an American ambassador?

These are not hypothetical questions—and yet there is an entire class of journalist so invested in a certain moral and ethical image of the president its members are unable to entertain facts that might tarnish that image. They are the pro-Obama equivalent of Birthers, never letting emerging facts cloud the conclusion they’ve already committed to hold.

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It's your latest primetime drama: "Scandal" featuring President Obama.

The same journalists who did not hesitate to assume the worst of previous Republican administrations—E.J. Dionne, Walter Pincus, Jack Shafer, to name a few—are now tying themselves in knots trying to explain that there is nothing to see when the IRS probes Obama’s enemies or that the Justice Department secretly seizing the phone records of one of their peers and his mother was really a good thing. One has to wonder if it were their mother and her records, how that mother-son conversation would play out.

“Well, Mom, you know, the president has to do these things, and I’ve told you time and again not to email Aunt Sally about my sources. Is that any way to keep hope alive?”

What to make of journalists who have decided that it’s more important to defend the president than to defend their own profession?

Some have suggested that these are difficult days for the administration, but I think not. Sure, they may put on a grim face now and again before the public, but away from the cameras, they must be giggling like the stoned kids of Obama’s old Choom Gang.

‘Well, Mom, you know, the president has to do these things.’

It’s as if the administration is playing a game to see just how far it can push its true believers in the press corps before some semblance of self-respect emerges and they push back. You can picture White House staffers chortling in amazement as they pick up the Washington Post to read Pincus’s stern defense of criminalizing journalism. They must be asking themselves, “What do we have to do to get these people angry?” 

They might have thought they’d get Mother Jones to justify this, but convincing serious journalists to parrot this line is the stuff they give out medals for in White House communication operations.

Of course Jay Carney is no stranger to testing the limits of self-respect. This is a man who left a once-great newsmagazine to work for Joe Biden. How bleak does your professional life have to be that you figure it’s a step up to work for the man who stole words from Neil Kinnock? I laugh every time I see some reporter trying to shame Jay into telling the truth. Please. Jay knows that in Washington, shame is for sissies and better to be a Biden stooge than a sissy.

It’s disheartening to see the Obama administration attack the press in unprecedented ways and the reaction from the press is to accept that blame and then go forth to explain to the world that the president isn’t really like this. Most of the time he is a good guy. He loves us, honestly. He just has these moods.

By playing the victim, the press empowers not only this administration but also every one to follow. So if you’re okay with Eric Holder going after your mom’s phone records, just remember that you are giving permission to the next AG who might be some Republican you and your editorial board loathe.

But like Obama destroying the public financing system for elections, once you let the genie out of that bottle, good luck in getting it back inside.