Obama’s strategy is part of a broader mass communications trend in which politicians, corporate leaders and others in public life are using digital tools to send their messages directly to the public without a media filter.
‘‘It’s all about control,’’ says Eric Dezenhall, an image consultant who has worked for years with politicians, celebrities and business people.
‘‘Why put your CEO on ‘60 Minutes’ when he can record something that appears on the corporate website? That way he can’t be accused of not commenting but he doesn’t have to stand up to the withering scrutiny you might face in an investigative TV show.’’
Obama’s communications strategy works well for him, Dezenhall says, but sometimes at the expense of the ‘‘rowdy, boisterous scrutiny that the free press is based on.’’
So it was that when defeated presidential candidate Mitt Romney met with Obama for lunch at the White House after the 2012 election, there was no press access. The only photo was a White House handout that showed the two men talking in the Oval Office, clearly the president’s turf. And when bipartisan congressional leaders met with Obama for crucial budget talks in November 2010, the only coverage was a White House photo showing the president with his hand on the shoulder of Republican Rep. Eric Cantor as other lawmakers stood by, the president at center stage.
When the president got complaints that his live-streamed meeting with his export council was open to just one reporter, press secretary Jay Carney responded: ‘‘Everyone in America with electricity and a computer could see it.’’
That’s true, but the lone White House camera offered just one view.
And while plenty of news organizations cover the president’s State of the Union address, the commentary that accompanies the White House’s ‘‘enhanced’’ version is more one-sided.
When viewers choose the White House as their news source, ‘‘what people are being exposed to is highly selective,’’ says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. ‘‘They’re not getting the balance of the alternative points of view. They’re not getting the criticism that asks, ‘Is this accurate?’ It’s not being put in historical context.’’
Jamieson says the White House-generated content can be highly seductive, particularly when people feel they’re developing a ‘‘direct relationship’’ with White House officials who send out chatty mass emails and solicit feedback through social media.
Democratic and Republican veterans of the White House alike say it makes sense for the Obama administration to maximize its use of digital advances to communicate directly to the public, but they warn that something is missing when ‘‘the administration’s feet are not held to the fire’’ in certain settings, in the words of Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under George W. Bush.
Kumar, the Towson professor, warns that the administration can even delude itself if it puts too much emphasis on self-reinforcing content.
‘‘They start believing what they’re creating,’’ she says. ‘‘They need to hear a lot of voices and they need to hear them early.’’
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