How Will the Media Cover Obama?

Susan J. Douglas

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It’s the morning after Election Day and, like millions, I am filled with elation and hope. CNN let me feel that for about one hour. Then came its pundits.

If and when there is Bush ‘legacy’ talk, one big topic should be his administration’s blatant use of PR, censorship and propaganda.

They warned of all the problems facing President-elect Barack Obama – the economy, threats from Pakistan, the desperate need for universal healthcare, global warming, all the things Bush ignored or denied for eight years. And they emphasized how Obama will have to – have to – govern from the center” and not move too far left” the way Bill Clinton did. Clinton! And where’s all that mandate talk that Bush got in 2004

Now that Obama and his strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe have presided over one of the most successful presidential campaigns in modern history, they face not only all of the national and geopolitical problems mentioned above, but also this: Our deeply contradictory, image-over-substance, verbal food-fight-oriented news media.

I say contradictory because much of the news media is still used to the same-old, same-old when it comes to political coverage: speculation about the future as actual news, a focus on verbal gaffes, sex scandals, celebrities and the like. But this is also a news media beaten up and beaten down by the Bush administration – which could mean, oddly, that they will be much more critical of Obama than they were of Bush.

If and when there is Bush legacy” talk, one big topic should be his administration’s blatant use of PR, censorship, press intimidation and propaganda. No administration, not even Nixon’s, waged such a determined campaign to present lies as facts, to smear reporters, to withhold information, to leak bogus information to credulous reporters, and to hire hacks who pretended to be reporters. 

Team Bush struck, of course, at an ideal time: news divisions had suffered cuts, especially in international news; the drive for profits meant a rise in sensationalism, a decline in investigative work and substantive reporting; and 9/11 and the war on terror cowed much of the news media – especially television – into submission.

Few of us will forget the exploitation of shows like NBC’s Meet the Press,” on which Vice President Cheney and others repeatedly appeared to reiterate the lies about WMDs. 

Remember the mini-scandal over the Office of Strategic Information,” set up to plant phony pro‑U.S. news items with foreign news outlets? Or how all that false information about WMDs was leaked” to an overly credulous Judith Miller at the New York Times?

Then there was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice telling the networks not to air a tape of Osama bin Laden because she felt it contained coded messages that were secret instructions to sleeper Qaeda cells in the United States. And let’s not forget the planting of Jeff Gannon, a fake reporter with a fake name, in presidential press conferences to ask very friendly questions of Bush. 

Remember Armstrong Williams, the neoconservative talk show host who was paid with taxpayer dollars to appear on the news as a neutral source on the great wondrousness of No Child Left Behind? The White House made sure this practice of using fake journalists in government-produced fake news stories to hype the Bush agenda was deployed by various government agencies, like Health and Human Services. It provided local stations with bogus news stories about the virtues of the administration’s prescription-drug benefit, which we now know is a fiasco. And, of course, there was the over-the-top stagecraft of Mission Accomplished.” All out-and-out propaganda. 

So, as elated as I am, we should pay close attention to how the news media covers the Obama administration. On the one hand, they will surely be relieved to no longer have an administration so bent on lying to, manipulating, and besmirching the press, and they may welcome what we imagine will be greater transparency from the White House. 

On the other hand, such transparency can lead to more critical coverage. Plus, we still haven’t reinstated the Fairness Doctrine, which once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that is honest, equitable and balanced. As a result, Limbaugh and all can rail on. 

And we still have the 24 – 7 cable news maw addicted to scandals, gaffes and gasbag pundits. 

Managing this, on top of everything else, will take great fortitude, and it is one of the most important things the Obama team will confront, because it will shape people’s perceptions of everything else. 

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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