Reid Cherlin used to work for The Obama Administration. After the election of the new President in 2008, he worked in the Press Secretary’s Office as one of its spokespeople. He left the gig a couple of years later.
In a new piece for Rolling Stone magazine, he recounts his experiences from the inside. It has to be read to be believed.
You see, Mr. Cherlin, as he readily admits in the middle of paragraph seven, is an unabashed Obama fan:
“I’m biased in that I think Obama is right about most things. I also believe he’ll be remembered as an excellent president.”
And he thinks his former boss is deeply misunderstood, thanks to those big meanies in the media or “the filter”, as he dismissively describes them:
“It’s always an easy story to point out where the president has failed to deliver on his promises.”
Throughout the article about Obama’s “messy relationship with the press”, Cherlin’s tone is often defensive with regards to press criticism, very much reflecting the feelings of his former boss.
Take Politico, for instance. Founded during the 2008 campaign, “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.” In other words, they hated the site for performing the terrible crime of journalism.
And then there are the individual reporters who angered the Administration. In April of this year, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler got reamed out in Air Force One’s press cabin in front of his colleagues for co-writing a cover story that declared one of Obama’s foreign trips a flop while it was still in progress. Because it was an off-the-record moment, “a definitive accounting of what was said is hard to come by…”
So, Cherlin paraphrases:
“…the thrust of the president’s message was this: Foreign policy is hard, you guys are scoring it like a campaign debate, and moreover, you’re doing it inaccurately.”
Foreign policy is hard? Good Lord. As for supposed examples of journalistic inaccuracies, none are mentioned. Huge shocker.
Some journalists who pissed off Obama got punished for leaking information the government expected to be kept secret, albeit until they deemed it ready for public consumption. Buzzfeed reporter Chris Geidner was “openly snubbed” by the White House for reporting on a “secret strategy meeting” with LGBT activists. His punishment? Being purposefully left out of a conference call that involved news of an upcoming executive order.
“Two months before, the White House had levied similar punishment on The New York Times for skirting a restriction called an embargo (information provided in advance on the condition that it can’t be reported before a certain set time). Times writers used their own sourcing to report the story early, and the next time an embargoed document came around, detailing one of the president’s upcoming speeches, Times correspondents found themselves excluded from the party.”
Not only do journalists get punished for disobeying silly restrictions like this that are imposed on them by these paranoid government officials, they can get bypassed completely. Following the phony controversy surrounding this famous Obama comment about conservatives – “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” – made during a private fundraiser in the 2008 Presidential campaign, according to Cherlin, the White House “began exploring ways to re-exert control, ignoring the media altogether.”
Which explains why the announcement of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate was done via text.
Beyond the grudges the Administration holds against specific journalists, it’s startling to read Cherlin’s comments about the press in general and how the government is supposed to react to their questioning. Consider the Veteran Affairs scandal that erupted this year. As a chorus of critics demanded the resignation of General Eric Shinseki, the embattled VA Secretary who Obama selected to run the troubled agency in 2009 after promising to cut ridiculously long wait times for severely injured war veterans, President Obama initially stood by his man. Then, during a Press Room briefing weeks after the scandal broke, he finally announced Shinseki’s departure.
Cherlin is perplexed by this. While correctly noting that the VA’s problems are “systemic” and go back decades, he can’t understand why Shinseki had to be removed from his job:
“…vets face long waits and substandard care on a systemic basis, and…firing the head of the agency probably will do nothing to change that.”
Then, he quotes former WH Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:
“…Washington has these things where in order for a story to stop and the next chapter to be written…there have to be these inflection points…” Like “ritual firings”, Cherlin adds.
In other words, why do we have to fire these incompetent people? It’s not their fault! This isn’t their problem! They didn’t start the fire! Blame the other clowns who came before them!
With regards to the persecution of journalists like the widely respected New York Times national security reporter James Risen, Cherlin quotes an anonymous Obama official who absurdly asserts that this is one of those “Bush investigations” that the administration didn’t initiate but merely inherited, as if the President had no choice but to keep it going. And that Obama “expressed both publicly and privately his frustration with the way they are being handled and has said reporters should never be in trouble for doing their job.”
Curiously, this follows a brief summary of the Risen case (the Administration wants him to testify in the Jeffrey Sterling leak case because they believe he was the source for a chapter in his State Of War book involving the secret US cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facility) where Cherlin correctly notes that “the Supreme Court, at the urging of Obama’s Justice Department, declined to hear Risen’s appeal.” Despite Obama asserting that “reporters should never be in trouble for doing their job”, he won’t stop hounding Risen to testify when he knows the reporter will never reveal his source and is prepared to go to prison if it comes to that. (If journalists can’t protect their sources, why would anyone confide in them?)
It’s bad enough Cherlin doesn’t mention the most serious of Obama’s transgressions (drones, Gitmo, Bagram, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, the war on drugs, excessive deportations, the war on whistleblowers, the NSA’s global surveillance state, delays in releasing the CIA torture report, prison torture, racial profiling of Muslims, the militarization of law enforcement) when listing a number of unflattering media stories that have diminished the President’s stature. It’s even worse when he suggests that the reason the media is so brutal to Obama in the first place is not that he has questionable policies but because the traditional news business is dying and as a result, anybody can be a journalist as long as they can do Buzzfeed listicles and have any kind of political grievance regardless of its factual validity.
Cherlin quotes recently retired WH Press Secretary Jay Carney, previously a 2o-year journalist who worked for Time Magazine, who claims that because “of all the cutting and slashing” of media jobs “everybody’s strung out and incapable of taking a breath and actually thinking about what they’re saying or writing.”
No actual examples are given. Furthermore, there is much whining about having to respond to any reporter inquiries at all, whether they be serious or otherwise. The overall sense of powerlessness Cherlin & others convey in the article is striking. It’s as if they’re not responsible for anything bad that happens.
There’s an interesting section where Cherlin writes about his own interactions with the media. It turns out he was a screamer, particularly when reporters wouldn’t play ball. He wasn’t the only one:
“It didn’t take long for the group [of White House press aides] to earn a reputation as overly quick to scream to get their way, or to exact a price for stories they saw as unfair.”
Toddlers are less childish. At any event, it was a failed tactic:
“…as the years passed and the novelty of an Obama presidency leached away, the atmosphere of presumption and entitlement to good coverage has worn poorly.”
“Presumption” and “entitlement”. The idea that it’s imperative upon the press to heap constant praise on this federal government or else speaks volumes. Ironically, considering the lack of skepticism that a number of beltway journalists exhibit when covering this administration, particularly on national security issues, I’d say Obama is still getting his way, despite all his growing scandals. His persecutions of government whistleblowers and the journalists who employ them as sources are proof of that. With some notable exceptions, he has scared the media into various fits of self-censorship. A definite chill is being felt throughout the entire news business.
Cherlin’s Rolling Stone article is accompanied by an illustration of a wounded, bandaged Obama glaring sullenly at a small group of journos reimagined as voracious lions ready to pounce on him repeatedly.
Unfortunately, the reality, despite Cherlin’s often wimpy, unfounded assertions, is quite the opposite.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 5, 2014