How President Obama Neuters Independent Reporters


There are unwritten rules that the White House press corps is forced to follow. Since other journalists are less constrained, they get less access.

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In a Tuesday editorial, The San Francisco Chronicle lashed out at President Obama for what it called a failure of transparency. "The Obama White House's restrictions on media access to its fundraising events makes a mockery of its claim to be the most transparent administration in history," the newspaper insists. "If anything, there is almost a Nixonian quality to the level of control, paranoia -- and lack of credibility -- this White House has demonstrated on the issue of media access to President Obama's fundraisers. Bay Area reporters will not be allowed inside the W Hotel today when the president meets with hundreds of contributors paying $7,500 or more to attend."

What I found most interesting was the next line. "Only Washington-based journalists were allowed in the pool -- continuing a disturbing trend by this White House to severely limit access to fundraisers." Doug Mataconis gives useful background: earlier this year, an SF Chronicle reporter "was threatened with being 'blacklisted' from future pools because she had shot video during a pool event, which the White House claimed was an 'unwritten rule.' That video, you may recall, showed a group of protesters on behalf of Bradley Manning interrupting an Obama fundraiser earlier this year. After that incident, the White House started barring local reporters from pool coverage."

Two observations:

1) Interesting that reporters on the White House beat full time are regarded as the most reliably compliant as the Obama Administration tries to control information. This makes sense. If your livelihood depends on generating stories within the bubble of the White House press room and presidential travel, you're particularly reliant on your minders, and vulnerable to their displeasure. This isn't a knock on the reporters so constrained, but an observation about the distorting effects that make their way into presidential coverage and the need for journalistic organizations to invest in reporters who are covering the Obama Administration from outside the bubble too.

2) Now that so many San Franciscans get their national political news from the New York Times or the Washington Post or Politico or CNN or blogs or "The Daily Show" (or right here on The Atlantic's politics channel), it is much less important for presidents to care about pissing off the editorial boards of regional newspapers. Editors in San Francisco and Seattle and Phoenix and Austin and Chicago and Atlanta and Miami enjoy less influence, compared to their counterparts in Washington, D.C., than they once did, and national coverage is more shaped by folks who share an inside the Beltway perspective, if only because it's where they live. Early on in the Internet era, some people expected that just the opposite would happen -- that online connectedness would make it easier for journalists all over the country to help shape the political conversation, and that the resulting culture of political discourse would be less driven by insiders.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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