November 1, 2013
President Barack Obama has been holding more frequent meetings with a coterie of United States pundits. The pundits are given access to the president and, in return, Obama expects his points of view will be represented in national opinion articles that are published on current issues or affairs of the day.
On their own, these kind of meetings are an example of how those who write opinion articles for establishment media see it as part of their job to help citizens understand the behavior of those in power.
The people who Obama has chosen to regularly meet, according to POLITICO’s Dylan Byers, are "the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types."
…Brooks, the New York Times columnist, is a frequent guest, as is Joe Klein of Time Magazine. From The Washington Post: E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson, Ezra Klein and Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor. On foreign policy: the Post’s David Ignatius, Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg, and the Times’ Thomas Friedman. He also holds the occasional meeting with conservatives. This month, he met with Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, and other influential representatives from the right…
All of these people are men. With the exception of Eugene Robinson, they are also all white.
Byers reported Obama will ask "aides or administration officials what a specific columnist thinks about an issue. Sometimes, the aide will then reach out to the columnist to ask his or her opinion."
"It’s like, 'The president wants to know what you think about 'x.’ So you go, 'I guess I better figure out what I think about 'x,’" one columnist explained.
This is apparently not supposed to lead to pundits writing what the president might like to hear that day, but it has that effect, which begs the question of whether those columns are even that pundits’ actual opinions or what they think will be acceptable to the president.
These male pundits are all vulnerable to the authoritative views of the president. They will take the time in these sessions to let Obama try to convince them that he is right, whether it be on the debt ceiling, health care, Syria, etc. They will listen to him explain how all of his opponents happen to be wrong.
They will then allow his point of view to appear in their writings in some form. As one unnamed journalist said, "I feel it work with me. It’s almost impossible to spend hours face-to-face with the president, unfiltered, then write a column or go on television without taking his point of view into account."
It is phony to write an opinion column after talking to the president and pass off views that may be the president’s as one’s own views.
For example, on July 8, Joe Klein wrote, "The President gave a speech about his management of the federal bureaucracy today. I’ve been critical of this aspect of his presidency in the past, so it’s only right that I respond to his effort, even though I know this is a topic that only a few of us, really weird wonkomoids, find scintillating."
Maybe, he met with Obama before this column and maybe he didn’t. The fact that we now know he’s had meetings with Obama where Obama has tried to convince him he is right should make one wonder if Klein decided to praise Obama because he didn’t want to appear too critical. It should make us wonder if he wanted to make sure he could get another private session with the most powerful man in the world.
Beyond the meetings themselves, there is the reality that they fuel a pernicious dynamic that Obama’s administration has created.
Byers alludes to it in his report:
The sessions, which have become more frequent in Obama’s second term — he held at least three in October — provide a stark contrast to the combative, sometimes cantankerous relationship between the White House and the press corps. They also serve as an alternate means of shaping the debate in Washington: a private back-channel of genuine sentiment that seeps into the echo-chamber, while Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, delivers largely scripted responses in the public briefings. Obama holds the occasional off-the-record meeting with top White House correspondents, but they are few and far between — a fact that rankles some members of the press corps. (POLITICO has attended off-the-record sessions with the president.)
As highlighted in a recent Committee to Protect Journalists report, the president has been one of the least transparent presidents in recent American history. ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton said, "Many of Obama’s important meetings with major figures from outside the administration on issues like health care, immigration, or the economy are not even listed on Obama’s public schedule. This makes it more difficult for the news media to inform citizens about how the president makes decisions and who is influencing them."
The administration has closed off access to reporters that actually want to report on the president and chosen to fill that void with its own newscast, "West Wing Week," which according to Compton is "five minutes of their own video and sound from events the press didn’t even know about." (But, it is five minutes of images and messaging the Obama administration wants the public to see and hear.)
Obama has also pioneered the use of social media to get announcements out, which means that there is even more limited access to information on what the president is doing on any given day.
The White House has a press office that will instruct reporters with questions to use what is already on White House websites. A Washington producer for the British television network, Channel 4, said, "We have to use White House website content, White House videos of the president’s interviews with local television stations and White House photographs of the president."
And so, these meetings with pundits should be understood as more evidence of what David Sanger of The New York Times has called the "most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered." Obama will feed views to this cadre instead of the corps of reporters that covers the White House and this propaganda will likely appear in some regurgitated form.
Plus, it is pure narcissism on the part of the president to hold these kind of meetings. There are any number of items on his agenda that he should be addressing, and he is clearing his schedule for time to indulge his ego in sessions, where he tries to convince opinion writers that his views are the right views. Of course, President Barack Obama can hold these meetings because there are opinion writers like the ones named above, who are more than willing to regularly offer him a blend of flattery and tempered criticism in return for the satisfaction of knowing he thinks they are indeed very smart and important people.
Finally, this "control freak administration" has prosecuted a record number of leakers as if they are spies. It also has allowed this chilling effect to permeate journalism, where reporters who cover information from confidential sources fear they could have their work threatened if the government makes them the target of an investigation. But don’t expect these pundits to realize how their confabs with the president might help to enable this pernicious climate, which makes it difficult for journalists to hold the president accountable.