Friday, January 30, 2009

"Who's Undercutting Obama?"

My spotter sent me this article in which a journalist complains that Obama's press office is not providing customary access to journalists. He complains:
I have called 202-456-2580, the main number for the White House press office, going back to the Nixon administration. Never has anyone in the press office declined to spell his name, give his job title, or hung up, even after the kind of aggressive exchanges that used to be common between journalists and flacks—and between journalists and high government officials, for that matter.

And he points out that while the Bush administration edited briefing transcripts, the Obama administration has gone farther, only posting snippets. He sees these as indications that Obama's promise of a more transparent White House is being undercut. He continues:
Politicians make choices and have to live with them. How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.

Talking to working reporters is not the only way to communicate with the people. The Obama administration seems to be embracing direct delivery of its messages via the website and YouTube. They seem to be saying “We don’t need the press to communicate our messages to the people. We can talk to the people ourselves.”

Okay, so let's unravel this a bit. Journalism has lost a lot of traction because, in effect, everyone has a printing press: electronic distribution is fast, inexpensive, and distributed, meaning that individual journalists don't have the advantage of positioning themselves at one end of the media pipe. So journalists aren't accorded the respect or level of access they were once given, simply because the White Househas other, more direct ways to get their message out. I'm not surprised that the Obama administration has figured this out, as the Bush administration did, nor that the Obama administration is going farther along this path.

On the other hand, when journalists lose their near-exclusive access to the upper administration, they don't get to ask tough questions directly to those administration members. Right now, the new media don't either. The new, distributed media architecture means that everyone can be an op-ed columnist or beat reporter, but it also means that individuals don't have enough individual influence to force their way into policy discussions. (That is, media has become "flat," but government is still hierarchical.)

So perhaps we're coming into an interregnum as old media power arrangements collapse but new media arrangements have not yet coalesced. The result, under these conditions, will most likely take the form of White House broadcasts (via YouTube and the official website) along with aggregation of feedback channels (e.g., comments, blog trends). This is quite potentially a recipe for poll-driven propaganda.

I'm hoping that we will quickly see other permutations. One possible model is that of the star blogger who has built up an enormous audience via network effects. Obviously this model, still under considerable development, has drawbacks as well as advantages.

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