Laugh of the Week: ‘Barack Obama Never Had Reporters Eating Out of His Hand’

Reid Cherlin, an Assistant Press Secretary during the first two years plus of the Obama administration, managed to deliver two laugh-worthy howlers in a piece for Rolling Stone posted this past Monday:

> “Barack Obama never had reporters eating out of his hand the way that right-wingers love to allege.”

> “I...believe he’ll be remembered as an excellent President.”

The two whoppers came in “The Presidency and the Press,” a piece in the August 14-dated issue of the magazine in which Cherlin contended Obama is a victim of how “the old way of the news business – in fact, the news business entirely – was falling away, and with it, the last shreds of comity between subject and scribe.”

Maintaining Obama’s a successful President, Cherlin asserted that from news coverage “the only impression you get is that the Obama presidency is on the verge of collapse, and that he either doesn’t know or doesn't seem to care.” Cherlin insisted: “It’s a complete disconnect, and it has everything to do with how the president is covered.”

Specifically, Cherlin, a press operative for the Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 before joining the White House press staff, blamed Politico: “Opinionated, grabby and lightning-quick, Politico played to the adrenaline junkie in every reader with content that was cheap to produce and a subject – the vagaries of political fortune – that was inexhaustible. Obama's advisers detested Politico from the start, accurately recognizing its potential to wreak havoc on their carefully crafted narratives, and to inspire their competitors to indulge in the same bad habits.”

Since departing the White House in early 2011, Cherlin has become a regular writer for New York magazine, the New Republic and GQ.

Cherlin concluded by fretting: “Beltway wags have long wondered how it is that Obama, such a gifted communicator, can’t manage to tell the story of his own accomplishments. As an insider, that criticism always annoyed me, because it conveniently ignores the realities of how things have changed.”

An excerpt:

I worked in Obama's press operation for four years, two on the first presidential campaign and two as a spokesman at the White House, responding to crises and commenting for reporters, and watching up close the rhythms of the particularly sour relationship between the president and the press. I'm biased in that I think Obama is right about most things. I also believe he'll be remembered as an excellent president. Which is strange to say, because if you are a consumer of any kind of political news these days, the only impression you get is that the Obama presidency is on the verge of collapse, and that he either doesn't know or doesn't seem to care. It's a complete disconnect, and it has everything to do with how the president is covered.

No, Barack Obama never had reporters eating out of his hand the way that right-wingers love to allege – even though Obama's intellectual approach made him seem like someone who could just as easily have been a columnist as a candidate. Appearing at his first Correspondents' Dinner, in 2009, the president joked, "Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me." But even as polite laughter settled over the black-tie crowd, there was ample evidence that the old way of the news business – in fact, the news business entirely – was falling away, and with it, the last shreds of comity between subject and scribe.

....

"Like any period of tumultuous change, it's not a happy one," says Obama's former communications director Anita Dunn. But the consequences run deeper than a lack of good feeling. In our history classes we mythologize the idea that a president can change the world just by speaking: "Ask not," or "Tear down this wall." We summon the image of FDR's fireside chats – but what would they have been without that obedient row of network microphones? The pliant, monolithic news media of old is simply gone, and with it, one of the greatest powers of the presidency. "This idea that somehow there's a bully pulpit that can be used effectively," Dunn says, "to communicate with everybody in this country at the same time and get them all wrapped around one issue – it's very much an idea whose time has passed."



The origin story of Obama's messy relationship with the press is the origin story of the president himself and his seminal 2008 campaign. Even as Obama was showing off an electrifying knack for motivating and organizing people, his team was beginning to grapple with what was quite obviously a media world in the throes of reinvention. To start with, there was Politico, a website founded just as the race began. Opinionated, grabby and lightning-quick, Politico played to the adrenaline junkie in every reader with content that was cheap to produce and a subject – the vagaries of political fortune – that was inexhaustible. Obama's advisers detested Politico from the start, accurately recognizing its potential to wreak havoc on their carefully crafted narratives, and to inspire their competitors to indulge in the same bad habits.

....

Beltway wags have long wondered how it is that Obama, such a gifted communicator, can't manage to tell the story of his own accomplishments. As an insider, that criticism always annoyed me, because it conveniently ignores the realities of how things have changed. As an outsider now, I see the point. If someone this talented and this appealing can't succeed in forging consensus – or even settle on a consistent narrative about what he's done – then what hope is there for the next president? We suddenly find ourselves living in a post-narrative world, and our politics, somehow, are going to have to adapt.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center