Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
President Trump and his predecessor had very different relationships with the media. And the media had a very different relationship to each of them.
Obama didn’t like talking to the press corps. The freewheeling unstructured chats that President Trump has become known for were rare during his administration. Instead, Obama preferred to have cronies arrange extended interviews at which he held forth to a single admiring reporter from an elitist publication.
These interviews targeted Obama’s base of wealthy donors and influential figures. And they were supplemented with staged events with millennial personalities that made him seem accessible. But Obama was anything but accessible. His media interactions were carefully managed.
Even his photographs, usually the one area where politicians have the least control, were often not the work of the media, but of his own photographer, Pete Souza, producing flattering images of him for the press. The White House Correspondents Association protested that, “Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties.”
Obama wasn’t worried about rudeness from CNN or even tough questions. The abrasive belittling that President Trump has faced from the press corps would have been unthinkable. Even tough questions were a rarity. In one of the more embarrassing moments of media fawning, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny asked Obama, what "enchanted you the most about serving in this office?"
But Obama and his associates worked hard at staying in control of the message. They didn’t just want flattering coverage. They couldn’t have gotten negative media coverage if they had nuked Boston. What they wanted was for the media to be an extension of the White House’s messaging operation. Tight control over Obama’s availability allowed him to purposefully set the media’s agenda to match his own.
An analysis by White House Transition Project director Martha Kumar noted that while Obama gave far more interviews, President Trump has done many more short Q&As. 42% of Trump's public statements came through his time with reporters while only 31% of Obama's did. Trump works the press in front of the camera. Obama’s people did most of their work with the press behind the curtain.
Where Obama needed to tightly control the media, Trump is comfortable trolling it. Obama avoided unstructured conversations because they might lead to the media covering something other than he wanted them to. Trump however is confident about getting the media to cover exactly what he wants.
Obama structured coverage by limiting access and using cronies like Ben Rhodes to trade access, plant stories and manipulate the media into functioning as his echo chamber. Trump welcomes coverage, and keeps his interactions with the media public. Unlike Obama, he expects no secret favors from the media. And his rousing battles with the media help promote whatever he wants to talk about. The more the media hates Trump, the more it has to cover him. The more he provokes it, the more it reports on him.
While Obama rarely ventured outside his comfort zone to appear on FOX News, Trump deliberately seeks out the New York Times. That’s not the behavior of a man who is afraid of negative coverage.
Trump’s boisterous exchanges with the press show the hollowness of the media’s blathering about threats of censorship. If Trump really wanted to censor the press, all he would have to do is shut it out.
There’s no reason that Trump couldn’t operate in his own echo chamber, giving interviews only to his political allies, cutting the press corps out entirely, distributing photos from his own people, relying on social media and letting the mainstream media go. Obama did most of that, apart from the last.
Despite the media’s whining about Trump, he poses no threat to the First Amendment. Trump thrives in the chaotic atmosphere of a freewheeling press seeking gossip, scandals and headlines. The media that Trump has is the one that he wants. It’s the one that he learned to manipulate early on, beginning with the New York City tabloids in his salad days as a businessman, long before he entered national politics.
Obama’s obsession with controlling the media quickly turned thuggish. Reporters were spied on and prosecuted. Those who wrote unfavorable stories were subjected to public attacks and harassment by their colleagues. In the Trump era, reporters might be ridiculed by a pro-Trump audience or insulted by Trump, without fearing criminal prosecution, eavesdropping or targeted attacks aimed at their career.
Instead, in the Trump era, targeted attacks from within the profession are more often aimed at journalists who have been deemed insufficiently hostile to Trump. Axios’, Jonathan Swan recently faced an onslaught of media hit pieces over his interview with Trump. Swan was attacked for not going Full Acosta and arguing with Trump. That’s a constant pressure that journalists who talk to Trump face. If they don’t go after him as hard as they can, they risk being accused of collusion by their colleagues.
The New York Times sneered that Swan had been an “obscure Australian striver” and accused him of “smiling so gleefully” during the interview. The hit piece followed the pattern of media takedowns of fellow journalists based on insider leaks and slack transcripts. Its larger message was intimidation.
Be Acosta. Or else.
Under Obama, the media had punished negative reporting on the White House. Even Bob Woodward, recently the toast of the town for his attacks on Trump, came under siege when he complained about pressure from the Obama White House. The same media that claims that Trump’s insults represent a profound threat to the First Amendment, mocked Woodward for complaining about the intimidation.
NPR, The Atlantic, Politico, and the New York Times ridiculed Woodward’s complaints and accused him of being a “right-wing hero”. Under Obama, complaints of White House intimidation were suppressed. Under Trump, they’re exaggerated to absurdity. The media doesn’t have a problem with politicians intimidating reporters. Like their accusations of racism and sexism, the accusation of press intimidation is selectively political.
Trump’s seeming hostility to the media and Obama’s friendliness to it conceal a deeper truth about how leftist ideology threatens even friendly industries while conservative politics protect them. Trump has a combative relationship with the media in public and Obama had a congenial one, but behind the threats and kisses in front of the cameras, Obama threatened its independence and Trump does not.
The ideological compatibility between Obama and the media didn’t protect it, it threatened it. Leftist movements crack down even harder on internal ideological dissent because it threatens their control. The more the media did Obama’s bidding, the more he needed to control its every move. Trump has defined the media as the enemy and is happy to allow his opposition to destroy its own credibility.
Trump is only a threat to the media to the extent that it has consolidated its corporate operations and its machinery for shaping public opinion. Obama however threatened individual reporters to the extent that they had not fully adopted the groupthink and the talking points being circulated that very day.
There’s been some debate about whether the media ought to be plural or singular. Trump threatens its singularity; Obama threatened its pluralism.
When President Trump opened up White House press conferences to a greater variety of media outlets, including some conservative ones, the media protested angrily. Trump’s threat to the media has been his willingness to not only talk to the media, but also to people outside the mainstream media. Obama’s threat was his need to consolidate the media into a single voice run entirely out of the White House.
And that’s not just a threat to the media. It’s a threat to the First Amendment and to America.
Obama didn’t initiate the centralization of the media. He plugged into an ongoing process. And even now, the centralization and its accompanying groupthink continue to grow.
The media exploited lefty anger over Trump’s victory to pursue the wholesale censorship of social media under the guise of fighting ‘fake news’. When the media accuses Trump’s taunts of ‘fake news’ of being a threat to the First Amendment, it’s projecting its own plots onto him. CNN continues to shrieks its lies uninterrupted. But conservative journalists have been censored by media ‘fact checkers’ whom Facebook and other social media companies have put in charge of censoring ‘fake news’.
That’s the fundamental difference between Trump and Obama. And between the Right and the Left.
Conservatives argue. Leftists censor. The Right may insult, but the Left silences. Arguments don’t threaten the First Amendment. Neither do heated exchanges or taunts. Silencing critics does.
The media hates President Trump because it hates the First Amendment. His freewheeling style, openness and willingness to shoot from the hip are the essence of free speech.
And there’s nothing that the Left hates more than free speech. That’s why it loved Obama.