Herald v Obama saga reveals much about how politicians deal with the media

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Mark Twain knew it to be true. The underlying message is no less true today, despite how communications technology has changed the nature of the media. It’s really disappointing that Barack Obama’s press staff may not get it.

They give the appearance of being intent on freezing out media who are hostile to him. Most recently, the Boston Herald whined that it was being denied access to the presidential visit to Boston on Wednesday and was barred from participation in a press pool. According to Media Nation critic Dan Kennedy, there was less to this than meets the eye. The White House rotates those in pool coverage of local Presidential visits; the Herald couldn’t participate in this pool because it was full, but could do so in a future one.

But Presidential media staff person Matt Lehrich (apparently David Axelrod’s nephew ) responded to the Herald’s complaint in a way that should get him fired. His response to the Herald implied that the White House was miffed when the paper ran a front-page op ed by Mitt Romney during a Presidential visit to Boston in March. The Herald quite properly publicized Lehrich’s email, which was to all intents and purposes a threat to retaliate by limiting access to media critical of the President.

Regardless of the facts, people are quite ready to believe that the Herald has been discriminated against because they remember how the President quite famously froze out Fox News, refusing for a long time to respond to Fox reporters or appear on the “fair and balanced” network.

Any hint of punitive press strategy seems just dumb. For one thing, it is counterproductive, spurring a spate of articles and commentary by the frozen ones, no fewer than five articles in Thursday morning’s Herald alone and more today. But it isn’t just that allegations of press discrimination prompts still more attention paid to the thin skin of the Administration. It conveys a sense that the Administration can’t stand up to criticism.

Such instances are legion. Governor Deval Patrick learned the hard way in his first term that you can’t let the media know they’re getting to you. You’re the person in power. You should be able to stand up to the pressure and deftly respond. It doesn’t matter if a certain media outlet isn’t particularly fair to you. A free press means that media of all stripes have the latitude to criticize you whether they’re right or wrong. You gain credibility by going head to head with your critics. And no reporter should be pressured to pull his or her punches for fear of getting frozen out.

My first personal exposure to Obama was in Chicago when he filled in for an ailing Studs Terkel at a meeting of the National Conference of Editorial Writers in 2006. Obama hadn’t yet been elected to the U.S. Senate. We were all impressed by his thoughtful, nuanced responses even to some contentious questions. I left with the feeling that here was a politician who knew how to communicate with opinion writers and wasn’t afraid of criticism. Increasingly, as those opinions have become more acerbic in some quarters, he and his media staff need to resist a bunker mentality when it comes to irritating reporters.

I feel the same way when Senator Scott Brown dodges questions, either by appearing to take both sides of an issue or literally by ducking out of a venue by the back door, which some reporters have experienced.

Politicians should understand how bad such behavior can make them look and direct their staffs accordingly. Then again, the public has such a low regard for the Fourth Estate that dodging or freezing out reporters may simply look like a low-risk strategy to protect their images in the short term, rather than an arrogant contempt for the public’s right to know.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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