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Obama image machine whirs as press access narrows
Tuesday - 4/2/2013, 9:18pm EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A photo of the Obamas hugging that was released on Election Day 2012 has become the world's most popular tweet on Twitter. A dressed-up version of Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, packed with charts and graphs, is huge on YouTube. A playful picture of the president cavorting with a 3-year-old in a Spiderman costume is a favorite online.
It's all courtesy of the Obama image machine, serving up a stream of words, images and videos that invariably cast the president as commanding, compassionate and on the ball. In this world, Obama's family is always photogenic, first dog Bo is always well-behaved and the vegetables in the South Lawn kitchen garden always seem succulent.
You'll have to look elsewhere for bloopers, bobbles or contrary points of view.
Capitalizing on the possibilities of the digital age, the Obama White House is generating its own content like no president before, and refining its media strategies in the second term in hopes of telling a more compelling story than in the first.
At the same time, it is limiting press access in ways that past administrations wouldn't have dared, and the president is answering to the public in more controlled settings than his predecessors. It's raising new questions about what's lost when the White House tries to make an end run around the media, functioning, in effect, as its own news agency.
Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, sees an inclination by the Obama White House to "self-publish," coupled with tactics "I never would have dreamed of in terms of restricting access" for independent news organizations.
"What gets lost are those revealing moments when the president's held accountable by the representatives of the public who are there in the form of the media," says McCurry.
Obama himself took note of complaints about limited access in his jokes last month at the Gridiron dinner, an annual event where political leaders, journalists and media executives poke fun at one another.
"Some of you have said that I'm ignoring the Washington press corps, that we're too controlling," Obama said. "You know what, you were right. I was wrong and I want to apologize -- in a video you can watch exclusively at whitehouse.gov."
Three days later, it was no laughing matter when the White House live-streamed on the Internet Obama's meeting with his export council and allowed just one reporter in the room.
Still, the White House rejects the notion that it is turning to new media it can control at the expense of the old, instead describing an all-of-the-above strategy.
"From press conferences to interviews with national, regional and constituency press, to new social media platforms, we have worked to both expand the scope of communication and also deepen the level of engagement between the American people and the work of the White House," says Jamie Smith, deputy press secretary.
Statistics compiled by Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Maryland who studies presidential communication, show how Obama's strategy has differed from his predecessors.
In his first term, Obama engaged in 107 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters during events in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and similar settings. President George W. Bush, by contrast, had 354.
By the same token, though, Obama held twice as many solo press conferences as Bush: 36 compared with 17. And in the first term Obama did 674 interviews -- TV, radio, Internet, print -- compared with 217 for Bush and 191 for Clinton.
With interviews, the president has more power to choose his timing, questioners and format, in hopes of delivering a certain message in a setting that's not always hard-hitting. In impromptu Q-and-A sessions, the questions fly about anything and everything from the national press corps -- and these wide-open opportunities to challenge the president on the events of the day have become increasingly rare.
Even in regional interviews, though, Obama can and does sometimes get asked about breaking or embarrassing news of the day.
"There's no question that he's opening and closing the door at his choice," says Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "He's controlling the flow as much as he can."
The will for presidents to get their story out without media intervention has always been there.
What's different now, says Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism, is new technology that allows the White House to distribute its own content far more widely and effectively than past presidents could. At the same time, it's getting harder for cash-strapped news outlets to resist using photos, video and other content supplied by the White House.