I have problems with Michael Wolff's essay in Vanity Fair, particularly his cold-hearted, unnecessary and inaccurate personal jab at a White House press official, but if you're looking for insight on the way the Obama administration manages the print press, you could do a lot worse. My colleague Ron Brownstein likes to say that Obama campaigned on television and is governing through the New York Times. He means, as Wolff notices, that the Times -- still the most powerful star in the media firmament -- gets easier and better access to senior officials than anyone else.
In fact, it almost seems as though the Obama people have abandoned that grail of all White Houses, to bypass the mainstream media and go directly to the people, to get the message out, pure and unfiltered--which, with their millions of e-mail addresses and Twitter followers, never seemed so possible as now.
Instead, they're wooing The New York Times as assiduously as Pierre Salinger did on behalf of John Kennedy in 1962. And, perhaps not surprisingly, The New York Times woos back--rewarding the president with a lavishness of coverage not seen since, well, J.F.K. in 1962. It's an establishment lovefest.
It's some perfect re-creation of a relationship between president and news media that has not been seen since the White House pressroom was a clubby place with reporters invited into the press secretary's office for whiskey and cigars. It's cozy. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, who would have been, in previous administrations, the highest and most exclusive White House sources, have become almost casual quotes for the Times.
I hasten to add that the Times's White House reporters are excellent and don't just take scoops. And the White House gives Times entities like its magazine better access to The Man than they do to Peter Baker and Helene Cooper.
This paragraph also strikes me as tough and arguable, but not unwarranted:
It's not just that [Robert Gibbs] .... successfully holds the pressroom at bay. It's that he clearly doesn't take the press very seriously. Gibbs is perfectly affable and even, in his way, courtly. And yet he seems to be not quite listening. Nothing touches him. This is no doubt partly because everybody understands he's in like Flynn. Unlike with most press secretaries, where the press has the leverage of often knowing more than the press secretary, who is usually a relatively weak West Wing link, Gibbs really knows all, apparently--he's as present as anyone in the creation of Obama policy. There is too the Obama 30-point advantage--he's got America eating out of his hand. Gibbs has, at least so far, an easy product to sell. And then there's the personal insecurity on the part of members of the incredible shrinking press--their days are numbered and they know it.
As a member of that insecure press.... uh, yeah. But I think Gibbs takes the press more seriously than, say, deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who, as affable as he is, cannot stand the daily scrum. (Pfeiffer is a powerful behind-the-scenes force in developing the message.) Still, there is an aspect to Gibbs's performance -- and it is a performance -- that treats the press as decredentialed yakkers with nothing to say.
A few caveats: the press staff itself is usually pleasant to deal with. They're not standoffish or arrogant. And despite what White House officials claim, they DO watch the cable news networks (MSNBC is the network of choice) and they DO try to influence the network news coverage and they DO court TV anchors and they DO respond to the daily news with something other than indifference.