The Drudge Report is carrying the headline “White House admits: We ‘control’ news media…,” with a link to a WorldNetDaily story about the right wing’s target du jour, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn.
What we really have here are 2 questions: Does the White House control the media, and does the White House admit to controlling the media?
The WorldNetDaily article also claims to have the goods on the White House’s “admission,” in the form of a video of Dunn speaking at a conference in the Dominican Republic. Here are the money quotes:
“Very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn’t absolutely control,” said Dunn.
“One of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters,” said Dunn, referring to Plouffe, who was Obama’s chief campaign manager.
“We just put that out there and made them write what Plouffe had said as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter. So it was very much we controlled it as opposed to the press controlled it,” Dunn said.
The problem with this story is that the conference took place on Jan. 19, 2009, before President Obama took office, and Dunn is clearly referring to the campaign, not the White House press office.
Although Dunn was referring to the campaign, and in the context of a variety of smears against candidate Obama that were amplified by mainstream news coverage, her remarks do contain causes for concern. They belie a hostility toward reporters that could be seen as the current that powers the White House’s attempts to manage the press.
This is a phenomenon that has been observed by others in the White House Press Corps, as well. In July, Helen Thomas and Chip Reid tag-teamed Robert Gibbs over the administration’s tight control over the press:
While Gibbs fires off an amusing line about not being able to control the press in the form of Helen Thomas, that doesn’t mean the White House isn’t trying to control the press. What Anita Dunn calls “message discipline” often ends up looking more like “evasion.”
The job of the Press Secretary is no longer to give information, but to stay on message, and the White House reporter’s job is now to try like hell to throw him off-message. The extent to which this remains true depends entirely on the press’ comfortability with it. If more reporters dug in like Helen Thomas, and refused to accept the non-answers that have become the status quo, this would change.
There’s also the tightly managed stagecraft involved in White House events like the recent health care speech to lab-coated doctors in the Rose Garden. The press, again, play a large part in deciding whether such concentration on “optics” is really all that important. The media’s emphasis on the bare surface of the news necessitates the use of such tactics.
The Obama White House didn’t invent media management, but they are very good at it. I’m sure they would argue that, given some of the things Fox News throws at them, they damn well need to be. However, there is a fine line between that and naked hostility toward a free press. In a relationship that’s supposed to be adversarial, Robert Gibbs is a worthy adversary. With some of these comments, I’m starting to feel like Anita Dunn is more of an enemy.
Here’s the video of Dunn’s remarks:
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