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What Obama Gets Wrong About Our Political Media

Journalists and political leaders alike are suckers for high-minded reverie. Of all the many cognitive fancies billowing through both professions, probably the most alluring one is that the best and brightest among us are charged with the sacred trust of citizen-building. Without their tender ministrations, so they say, the populace will drift ineluctably into mere titillation—or worse, into intolerance, cynicism, and deranged fantasy.

And so in recent weeks our media savants have been rending their hairshirts over the notion that they, in a rare misapplication of their civic duties, have created the Trump phenomenon. And this plaint has gained an influential publicist in Barack Obama, the lame-duck leader of the free world who’s been moonlighting as a media critic of late.

Obama showcased his brief against the present media dispensation in a speech this week marking the 2015 Robin Toner prize for accomplished political reporting. (Robin Toner, it should be noted, was a truly sharp and skeptical political reporter for the New York Times who died tragically young in 2008; this year’s recipient of the Syracuse University award endowed in her honor is the equally impressive ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis.) That Obama’s remarks about the civic role of journalism are anodyne in the extreme is not itself all that noteworthy. There’s always a general aura of stultifying worthiness about awards ceremonies, and when they combine the interlocking self-regard of a loquacious profession and president, it takes an unusual astral alignment for anything remotely interesting to be said at such a gathering.

But even so, Obama’s vision of the right and proper model of democratic newsgathering is rather staggeringly wrong-headed. First, there’s the image of American journalists as guardians of the great civic faith of American exceptionalism. When our political leaders are unloosed—as Trump has conspicuously been—from the basic canons of journalistic interrogation and verification, nothing less than our hallowed national identity is placed in dire mortal peril, Obama warned. More precisely, unchallenged Trumpian utterances jeopardize

the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society—because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect. It creates this vacuum where baseless assertions go unchallenged, and evidence is optional. And as we’re seeing, it allows hostility in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. And that, in turn, tarnishes the American brand.

That’s a whole lot of civic defiling for an allegedly lackluster fact-checking system to be held responsible for. Wherever I may have come by my own meager store of republican virtues, I’m quite sure that errant—or superabundant—media empiricism had almost nothing to do with their acquisition. The public utility of media work stems mainly from its ability to unearth unpleasant truths about the misconduct of our politics—not by modeling, schoolmarm-style, the way that all righteous Americans should primly sequence their hearts, habits, civilized manners, and restraints. And our putatively wayward press operatives have nothing close to the alchemic power to transfer a hitherto cloistered brand of political hostility into a malevolent, Zika-like microbe formation that’s poised to “infest our broader society” and—horrors!—sully “the American brand.” 

Obama has been dilatory at best (and scandalously negligent at worst) in employing the investigative powers of the executive branch to look into past misdeeds.

Yes, our press lords have given the Trump campaign inordinate cable coverage—and yes, cable coverage is presently booming, thanks in no small part to Trump’s dominance of the genre. But Trump himself also makes great sport of demonizing the media, so much so that political reporters and columnists have lately taken to bewailing the personal hazards of Trump coverage. This suggests that the Trump-media symbiosis is at best a wash—hardly a shocking trend to espy in a conservative movement that’s now spent four decades denouncing the so-called liberal media, even as it’s tallied a stunning run of major electoral reversals against the hateful (and by now, quite sclerotic) liberal media elite and its agenda.

It may just be the case, in other words, that there’s no firm correlation between allegations of skewed and/or disproportionate media coverage and electoral success. 

(And since it seems increasingly necessary to belabor the obvious in this election cycle: what’s “created” the Trump phenomenon, if you ask me, is the decades-long marketing of ethnic resentment, postliberal backlash politics, and anti-intellectualism as super-Americanism on the right—and that, in turn, has been lapped up uncritically, alongside countless other baleful presuppositions about yon imperiled American republic, by a sensationalist press.) 

As for that sinister surfeit of unchecked baseless assertions, well, Obama himself goes on to hail Politico’s recent barrage of Trump fact-checking as a model of tough-minded journalistic empiricism “worth honoring and worth emulating.” So which is it? Is a punch-drunk, truth-indifferent, Internet model of public inquiry letting a blowhard, bigoted real estate mogul get away with shanghai-ing our habits of the exceptionalist heart? Or are diligent political reporters demonstrating that Trump is a compulsive and pathological liar to a largely blasé readership? (And if the latter is the case, doesn’t Obama’s own claim about the media playing Prospero to Trump’s Caliban stand as an unchallenged “baseless assertion” in its own right?)

This is all to say nothing, of course, of the Obama White House’s own grotesque failures to advance independent journalistic inquiry at the policy level, as a number of commentators have pointed out in the wake of Monday’s Toner prize stemwinder. Despite the Obama White House’s hectically self-advertised posture as the “most transparent administration in U. S. history,” it has consistently failed to deliver on such essential journalistic desiderata as FOIA reform and basic disclosures of government operations. That’s why, for example, none of us really knows what’s in the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord (apart, of course, from surmising with a depressing degree of certainty that it’s a masterwork of big-money Washington lobbying masquerading as trade diplomacy). It’s also why this administration feels uniquely empowered to dole out information to a select cadre of chosen journalists on its own chosen terms.

Indeed, there’s something more than a little unseemly about Obama wanting to outsource to the Fourth Estate some of the investigative duties his own White House has shirked, while also going out of his way to make it that much harder for investigative reporters to do their jobs. It’s telling that when he toted up the landmark public-interest work of newsgatherers, his frame of reference breaks off forty-odd years ago. Patiently explaining that the whole world is watching how our political press goes about its business, Obama delivers this jumbled parable of media truth-telling:

The number one question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, what is happening in America—about our politics. And it’s not because around the world people have not seen crazy politics; it is that they understand America is the place where you can’t afford completely crazy politics. For some countries where this kind of rhetoric may not have the same ramifications, people expect, they understand, they care about America, the most powerful nation on Earth, functioning effectively, and its government being able to make sound decisions.  

So we are all invested in making this system work. We are all responsible for its success. And it’s not just for the United States that this matters. It matters for the planet. 

Whether it was exposing the horrors of lynching, to busting the oil trusts, to uncovering Watergate, your work has always been essential to that endeavor, and that work has never been easy.

So, not only is the rest of the world counting on America to keep it sane, but the planetary duty of the American press is to keep our own politics from descending into gibbering lunacy. But note what’s missing from Obama’s litany of triumphs for investigative journalism: reporting on the two greatest calamities of American politics in our own century—the criminally botched American invasion of Iraq, and the economic collapse of 2008. This omission hardly seems accidental. These enormously destructive policy failures are not only monuments to colossal journalistic failures; they are also catastrophes that Obama himself has been dilatory at best (and scandalously negligent at worst) in employing the investigative powers of the executive branch to bring to compelling political resolution. Even before he was inaugurated in 2009, Obama announced that he was disinclined to mount legal proceedings against the war criminals of the Bush administration—a policy that his White House has also pursued covertly. And the Obama Justice Department’s failure to prosecute a single bad-acting banker in the wake of the 2008 crisis (well, okay, one, just barely) has birthed its own cottage industry in investigative journalism.

That Obama should single out Goldberg as an exemplar of journalism indicates that the man quite literally has no idea of what he’s talking about.

In some ways, all that we really need to know about Obama’s preferred model of American journalism was summed up in an aside in his speech about an exchange with Vladimir Putin, who was exercised about something he’d seen in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent Atlantic cover story about the president’s foreign policy doctrine. Speaking to the assembled journalistic worthies, Obama assured them that “Jeff is a remarkable journalist who I admire greatly.”

Well, he shouldn’t. No less than Judith Miller, Jeff Goldberg was a lead propagandist for the deeply counter-empirical 2003 invasion of Iraq, publishing a 2002 New Yorker story about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons arsenals and more ludicrously still, Hussein’s “possible ties to al-Qaeda.” This sort of ill-sourced, unverified reporting is exactly what Obama believes he was inveighing against in his critique of the 2016 campaign coverage. It’s also what cost Miller her perch at the New York Times—but Goldberg, largely on the strength of his superior networking skills, has avoided any such moment of reckoning.

That after a prolonged and earnest panegyric for the endangered virtues of investigative journalism, Obama should single out Goldberg as an exemplar of journalistic achievement indicates that the man quite literally has no idea of what he’s talking about. On another level, though, he’s simply engaging in the time-honored D.C. tradition of like speaking to like. And what sort of ill-mannered, uncivilized reporter would be so heedless of our gossamer civic traditions to point out the offstage bodycount run-up while we observe such pleasing public niceties?