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Summary:

The Obama administration has shown what is possible when a government becomes a media entity in its own right. But is that good or bad for a free press and for society in general?

We’ve written about how social media and the “democratization of distribution” that the web allows has turned companies like Tesla into media entities in their own right, and has done the same thing for armies during conflicts like Israel’s recent attacks on the Gaza Strip. In the same vein, social tools allow governments to become media entities as well — and according to a piece at Politico, the Obama administration has adopted those tools with a vengeance. But is that a net benefit for democracy, or an attempt by the government to control the press?

President Obama, who was celebrated by some as the “first internet president” after taking office — thanks to his use of a BlackBerry, as well as various web-based open government initiatives — has showed even more flair for the web and social media in the past year or so, in part by hosting events such as the Twitter town hall in 2011 and a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” feature during the election campaign last fall, in which he took questions from users of the online community.

Obama-Reddit

More open, or more controlling of the media?

While all of these tools and strategies make the president seem more approachable and human to some, however, to members of the traditional press it is part of an attempt by the Obama government to do an end-run around the media and get its message out directly without any fear of being challenged (although the traditional media seem to have had no problem covering up the existence of a drone base in Saudi Arabia when asked to do so). According to Politico:

“President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House [and] the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).”

As the Politico piece notes, governments have always tried to engineer their own messages, whether through hokey PR stunts like Calvin Coolidge’s radio addresses or government-produced propaganda shown in movie theaters, or through friendly reporters who are willing to write uncritically — as many have accused writer Judith Miller of doing at the New York Times when she covered the build-up to the Iraq War. But social media provides so many more tools (and real-time ones) for governments to use.

New York Times

Just as Elon Musk of Tesla used his blog — and some of the user data that his electric car produced during a New York Times review — to argue his case against the newspaper, the Obama government has almost as many tools (if not more) at its disposal as any of the media entities it used to rely on for coverage. It can produce and distribute news stories, audio interviews and video clips just as well as anyone, and media companies who have cut costs are always looking for free content. One photographer said the White House has “built its own content distribution network.”

The balance of power has shifted

As Politico describes it, the “balance of power between the White House and the press has tipped unmistakeably towards the government.” The Obama administration is said to be eschewing unscripted scrums in favor of orchestrated media campaigns like the Reddit AMA, which was widely criticized for not being as hard-hitting as a traditional interview (although I took issue with that description). Former Clinton-era press secretary Mike McCurry told Politico:

“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press [but now] the White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”

That word “cooperative” sums it up in a nutshell: in the past, governments had to cooperate with the media because they needed it to get their message out, just as companies like Tesla used to. But that’s not the case any more — or at least not as much as it used to be. The playing field has been leveled. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for democracy, or for society in general? Is more information better, even if it comes directly from the government?

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Picsfive and Flickr user jphilipg

  1. One problem is that it’s not information , it’s misinformation. A bigger problem is that governments , government entities and politicians are always trying to shape the public opinion and their actions are not regulated . Would be nice if it was a criminal offense for a gov to lie to it’s people , would be nice if they had to disclose when they are paying pundits or financing a movie , would be nice if the press would be more aggressive instead of playing ball for financial reasons (look at the presidential debates where global warming wasn’t ever a topic , everybody sold out to please the candidates ).
    What you are talking about here is a small part of the problem , as the technology evolved they are getting much better at manipulating the public and at some point that becomes dangerous .The fact that in the US there are only 2 political sides and they agree on some things only makes it more dangerous.No idea how involved corporations are in such practices (for their own benefit) but that’s another big problem .
    Would be interesting to study how such practices already impacted some of the most heated debate topics and how susceptible the public is.

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  2. On the one hand, disintermediation, even in news, should be a good thing. But if we disintermediate journalism, we’re all left to judge everything through our personal dogma lens.

    If there is no journalistic watchdog, we’ll be spoon-fed a bunch of crap. And let’s stop pretending it’s only crap when it comes from governments as opposed to business. The whole Tesla-NYT imbroglio shows Tesla trying to spoon-feed us more crap. Elon Musk doesn’t want bad press for his products. He wants to sell a bunch of cars so he goes on the attack when someone writes something he doesn’t like. How is that any less offensive than when a government does it?

    There is the old saying that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Reporters with enquiring minds are the best disinfectant for shady government. And I just don’t see that we all individually have time to perform the necessary research to find out the details of any potential wrong-doing. Give me a fiesty press any time. I may not agree with them, but I know they will keep the powers that be on their toes.

    Once we lose any semblance of investigative journalism, we will be a flock of sheeple, wandering aimlessly, simply bleeting dogma.

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    1. There’s a difference between a watchdog function and a gatekeeping function. The gatekeeping function is what is threatened here, and I personally think that’s not a bad development. The watchdog function is less threatened by digital end runs, and more threatened by the decreasing size of the journalism industry.

      We shouldn’t conflate watchdogging and gatekeeping functions of the press.

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  3. Kudos for mentioning the cover-up of the drone bases in Saudi Arabia by those esteemed guardians of truth.

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  4. Good piece Mathew. An undeniable feature of the new landscape — formerly non-media institutions functioning as media themselves. Related: Harvard Business Review piece arguing that “advertisers should act more like newsrooms.” http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/02/advertisers_need_to_act_more_like_newsrooms.html

    Two mitigating factors though:

    1. Calcified institutions — “non-media,” particularly in fields where they are not under financial pressure to innovate, have not really made this transition well so far. Look behind the doors of many institutions and you’ll see structures very much like the pre-internet days — “media relations” and “PR” functions that were built for a mass-mediated environment, not this emerging communications landscape. I think we’re a long way off from most “non-media” being restructured and retooled with the necessary skills to make legitimate end runs except anecdotally.

    2. Traditional media still enjoy much larger audiences than non-media organizations. The White House might be in a class of its own in its ability to speak directly to audiences without the press as intermediary, but that’s not the case for most non-media organizations. I wouldn’t compare the White House with the Tesla blog.

    Clearly, the pieces are in place for more of this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s bad. The traditional press will always have the ability to speak *about* and contextualize what state actors do and say (the press have the same digital tools at their disposal). They’ll just have less ability to gatekeep what pieces of information transfer from state actors to public audiences as they did in the past. I personally don’t think that’s such a bad development.

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    1. Thanks, Jeff — those are good points. Appreciate the comment.

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  5. I’m glad to see this point being made, and there’s more to consider. In my book Clout (New Riders), I included a case study of WhiteHouse.gov being transformed from a filing cabinet of the President’s communications into a media entity. One point to keep in mind is that every organization, every government agency, along with traditional media, is a publisher now. So, it balances out….unless a government agency starts to refuse answering questions from the media. Then that’s toeing the line of propaganda.

    Every organization has a right, even a responsibility, to share their perspective. The bigger question and challenge, to me, is with so many companies, organizations, media properties, and government agencies being publishers, how are we going to sort out the different perspectives efficiently to make decisions or form opinions?

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