Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, September 21, 2018

Obama: The post-media president

It is post-Baby Boomer, post-partisan, post-racial, and most importantly, post-Bush. And add to that list of unfounded hyperboles one new construction: "post-media."

Throughout the 2008 horse race, now-President-elect Barack Obama demonstrated a proclivity toward digital media. In slightly over a year, he solidified a 10 million-strong e-mail listserv and a 2.9 million-strong text message database, which he used to appeal directly to his supporters. And within the first week of his transition, Obama unveiled Change.gov, a Web site that invites user comments. Obama's advisers have only hinted at how, exactly, the new president plans to evolve that Web site into a White House communications hub this January.

To voters, Obama's focus on new media is promising. It introduces a new, more direct channel through which voters may communicate their feelings with his administration. And if precedent indicates anything, it is that Obama can and will use the medium to its fullest potential. For evidence, look no further than the surveillance debate, which disrupted conversations on his campaign Web site earlier this year. Rather than delete the disagreeable remarks, Obama responded to them, explaining his new position on the courts.

But to a White House press corps still reeling from its self-admitted failures during the Iraq war, Obama's Web 2.0 governing style introduces a series of new reporting challenges.

At issue is the notion of "framing" - the way reporters present an issue. Previously, reporters monopolized this process by dominating presses and airwaves and selecting which information to distribute through them. Presidents, therefore, were at the mercy of journalists; to articulate a position, commanders-in-chief had to first present their case to reporters, who then transmitted information to the masses.

But much as the Internet has revolutionized desktop publishing - now, everyone is a journalist - it has also changed the relationship between the president and the press. The White House has access to the same tools everyone else has, and administrations are just as able to network and report news as journalists. Of course, voters are cynical, and they tend to believe politicians far less than they believe reporters. But new media allow new presidents the ability to assert themselves more forcefully during the framing process.

In the context of the new Obama administration, these "post-news media" techniques are powerful. Remember, Obama has a sizable digital following - what many have called "the world's largest special-interest group." If he uses his vast databases to circumvent the "fourth estate," journalists may find themselves in direct competition with the White House's line.

Indeed, the presidency and the press have a historically adversarial relationship, one that is contingent upon coexistence: the president depends on media to articulate policy and reporters depend on presidents for information. But there is an equally obvious correlation between the Obama campaign's embrace of new media and journalists' inability to get close to the former candidate. The more opportunity Obama has to contact his supporters directly, as the campaign trail proved, the more distant he keeps journalists. In other words, White House reporters should prepare for an information deficit this January.

That said, the press is far from irrelevant under Obama. It is quite the contrary: All the talk about a "post-media" presidency means is that reporters have to work harder for their stories. Journalists are - and always will be - the gatekeepers for truth; while information production and dissemination is a process available to all, presidents included, there is no other institution more equipped to distinguish fact from fiction. And "post-news media" does not mean "post-social obligation."

Tony Romm is a senior in the School of Communication and the editor of politics@theEAGLE. You can reach him at tromm@theeagleonline.com.


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