Last week's dust-up between the press and the White House following the coverage of a fundraising event in San Francisco may be a turning point in the media's relationship with the Obama White House.
The chronology of events is as follows:
- The President attends a Democratic Party fundraising event in San Francisco.
- Print Pool reporters (a small, pre-approved group of newspaper journalists that simultaneously feed their coverage to all outlets) are in attendance.
- A protest erupts and one of the pool reporters catches it on video. (Citizens in attendance recorded this as well)
- The reporter posts the video online.
- The White House bans the reporter from future pool coverage, threatens to ban affiliated reporters if the ban is exposed
- The ban is exposed.
- The White House denies banning reporter, denies threatening other reporters, and apparently reinstates the reporter.
The video that triggered this kerfuffle can be seen here:
That brief clip seems relatively harmless. The President is seen reacting calmly to a short protest message delivered in harmonious fashion. So why did the White House take exception to this clip being posted and expel or threaten expulsion of the Chronicle's Carla Marinucci? The answer remains foggy, and the Chronicle appears to be dug in on the issue and is defending their actions as well as questioning the actions and motives of the White House.
San Francisco Chronicle editor Ward Bushee called out the White House for not telling the truth;
Sadly, we expected the White House to respond in this manner based on our experiences yesterday. It is not a truthful response. It follows a day of off-the-record exchanges with key people in the White House communications office who told us they would remove our reporter, then threatened retaliation to Chronicle and Hearst reporters if we reported on the ban, and then recanted to say our reporter might not be removed after all.
The Chronicle's report is accurate.
If the White House has indeed decided not to ban our reporter, we would like an on-the-record notice that she will remain the San Francisco print pool reporter.
But the story does not end with the statement from the editor. Chronicle publisher Phil Bronstein, seeing the obvious abuse of power here, weighed in;
The President and his staffers deftly used social media like Twitter and Facebook in his election campaign and continue to extol the virtues and value. Except, apparently, when it comes to the press.
So what's up with the White House? We can't say because neither Press Secretary Jay Carney nor anyone from his staff would speak on the record.
Other sources confirmed that Carla was vanquished, including Chronicle editor Ward Bushee, who said he was "informed that Carla was removed as a pool reporter." Which shouldn't be a secret in any case because it's a fact that affects the newsgathering of our largest regional paper (and sfgate)and how local citizens get their information.
What's worse: more than a few journalists familiar with this story are aware of some implied threats from the White House of additional and wider punishment if Carla's spanking became public. Really? That's a heavy hand usually reserved for places other than the land of the free.
But bravery is a challenge, in particular for White House correspondents, most of whom are seasoned and capable journalists. They live a little bit in a gilded cage where they have access to the most powerful man in the world but must obey the rules whether they make sense or not.
CBS News reporter, Mark Knoller, has publicly protested the limited press access to Obama fundraisers, calling the policy "inconsistent." "It's no way to do business," wrote Politico's Julie Mason, "especially [for] a candidate who prides himself on transparency."
A 2009 blog by the White House Director of New Media states that "President Obama is committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history."
Not last week.
Bronstein closes his piece by leaving some wiggle room for the White House;
Late today, there were hints that the White House might be backing off the Carla Fatwa.
Barack Obama sold himself successfully as a fresh wind for the 21st century. In important matters of communication, technology, openness and the press, it's not too late for him to demonstrate that.
We should be mindful of the previous actions of this administration when placed in adversarial positions.
Just about a year ago, Energy Secretary Ken Salazar appeared on CNN and talked about 'putting a boot on the throat of BP' and Robert Gibbs repeated the tough talk and reinforced the pledge at a press briefing the next day;
And then there is the pending Executive Order (reported here last week) which would mandate that any company hoping to win a government contract would have to reveal all political contributions made by the company, as well as those made by officers and board members of the company. While not stating that these contributions will hold any sway in deciding which companies will win these lucrative government contracts, it certainly raises eyebrows as to the motives of such an order. This order is even more suspect when you take note of the exception given to certain unions that are bidding on government business.
- Banning a reporter for a relatively small violation of an archaic rule.
- Threatening other reporters access if the ban is exposed.
- Using tough and threatening language with BP.
- Mandating through Executive Order that all companies wishing to do business with the government reveal their political contributions... unions exempted.
Is the media starting to connect the dots, realizing that they too might become targets of an overreaching government?
As mentioned above, this might be a turning point in the alleged love affair between mainstream media and the Obama administration. The Press needs to know that it can be vigilant and unfettered, or the words printed, videos posted, and televised reports will always be suspect.
The Truth Has No Agenda.