The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 3, 2013

Our View: Obama should open up more to scrutiny


The Free Press

— Barack Obama isn't the first president to attempt to bypass traditional news media and become his own news agency, but he may be the most successful at it. The rest of us should be concerned.

Presidents owe it to the public to take tough questions and answer them as thoroughly as they can. Societies dependent on democratic principles cannot function properly when their elected officials are allowed to do end-runs around the checks and balances that have been built into the system.

This White House has not only discovered social media, it has embraced it -- some say exploited it -- like never before. A photo of the Obamas hugging on Election Day 2012 is the world's most popular Twitter tweet. Various YouTube images showing the president at his best -- all of them produced by the Obama communications machine -- are everywhere.

What's not everywhere is the president answering to the public. The Associated Press is now calling him on it, charging that Obama is limiting press access "in ways that past administrations wouldn't have dared."

When he has given press access, it is often in controlled settings with friendly reporters. It's not just Republicans who have noticed. Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton's former press secretary, has charged the president with tactics "I would have never dreamed of in terms of restricting access."

Obama has had 107 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters in the Oval Office during his first term, contrasting with 354 by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama has had more solo press conferences than Bush (36 to 17), along with 674 interviews compared to Bush's 217. It is much easier to control solo appearances than open Q-and-A sessions.

 In numerous other instances, the Obama team has set rules limiting the number of reporters allowed on scene, and sometimes limited access altogether except for a White House photograph.  

It is time the press, as well as the public, demanded that the president be more accountable. Certainly Obama, himself, is well aware at how tightly managed he has become. He even joked about it last month at the annual Gridiron dinner, where politicians and journalists meet to trade one-liners. "Some of you have said that I'm ignoring the Washington press corps, that we're too controlling," Obama said, heading toward the punch line. "You know what, you were right. I was wrong and I want to apologize -- in a video you can watch exclusively at whitehouse.gov."

That was a good line. But not as funny as it sounds.