Shadow Government

Obama-worship is the least of the media's problems

By Peter Feaver

One of the perils of blogging is the rapidity with which one can get one's comeuppance. One day after I give props to the New York Times for offering modest accountability of President Obama and boos to the Washington Post for persisting in writing only "source sweetener" puff pieces designed to curry favor with the administration, I read this bit of hard-hitting investigative journalism from the Times' Jeff Zeleny: "During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?" This question during last night's press conference was so lame that even President Obama made a joke about it. 

Clearly the mainstream media has not yet figured out how to cover Obama. I don't expect them to subject the Obama team to the same kind of tendentious and mocking ridicule that was the norm for so much of the Bush coverage, but nor do I expect the current prevailing double-standard to persist throughout his entire tenure. The media needs to figure out how to live up to their much-heralded (by them) watchdog role, because the media serves an essential function in maintaining a functional marketplace of ideas. When the media shirks its traditional role as skeptical truth-squadder the way it has shirked during Obama's first 100 days, public debate and public understanding of the critical issues of the day suffers.

The best scholarship I have seen on the interrelationship between the media, public opinion, and policymaking is an article by Matthew Baum and Philip Potter: "The Relationship Between Mass Media, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis." The authors improve an older model, which held that the media was just a neutral tool of policy elites who force-fed the administration line to the unsuspecting public. Instead, the media acts as a broker, arbitraging between information asymmetries. Early on in a crisis or in the emergence of an issue, policymakers know more than the public (or the media) does. Over time, the media and the public "catch up" and become more of a constraining force on policymakers.

The Baum and Potter model still does not match perfectly what I experienced on a daily basis seeing the nexus from the inside, but it is a vast improvement over earlier approaches that exaggerate the power of policymakers to control the agenda in the face of a hostile press. The "broker" image also helpfully invokes images of real estate brokers or stock-brokers, reminding us that the media is not really neutral. On the contrary, they have their own incentives and they respond to them accordingly. The media can be "trusted" the way you trust your stockbroker, provided that you factor in the known biases and skews.

Some biases/skews are obvious: the media favors sensationalism over substance, and personality over process. If it bleeds it leads. If it is alarming, it is alluring. Thus, the coverage of the "swine flu outbreak" is thick with agonizing and fairly thin with analysis on how, for instance, the preparations the Bush administration developed in the second term to deal with concerns about an avian flu pandemic are now being put to good use. I got bored even writing that sentence, yet more people are alive today because of that "boring" work than because of the "interesting" man-wearing-mask interviews.

This leads to a generalized preference for stories about failure rather than stories about success. When the Iraq war was going poorly, it was far more "interesting" than when the Iraq war was going well. When it appeared the Bush administration did not want the media to cover the Dover casket ceremony, it was far more intriguing than now when the ceremonies are available for coverage.

Other biases are less obvious, and the most important one of these may also be the most surprising: compared to policymakers, the media have far weaker incentives to tell the truth. The punishment for policymakers who flat-out tell untruths is fairly severe. The punishment for the media is fairly modest.

Of course, policymakers will dissemble and sometimes get away with it. These are "you don't look fat in that dress" sorts of untruth, like claiming that this is not a bow. Untruths that hinge, as another president reminded us, on parsing the meaning of "is" are common. And the media, more often than not, call policymakers out on it and policymakers, more often than not, ignore it and move on.

Such untruths abound in the media, too, and they are almost never called out for it -- except in the truth-squadding blogosphere. And even when they are, they face little or no real public sanction. Only when the untruths reach mammoth proportions (cf. Jayson Blair) do the media really suffer much, at least for a little while.

As a day to day matter, I am confident that far more effort is devoted to making sure what the president says is true than is devoted to making sure that what reporters say is true. When the president does utter an untruth, he is jumped upon. When reporters do, at most they have to file a "corrections" report buried somewhere. I can remember spending an entire weekend trying to verify whether a certain sentence that some wanted President Bush to say in a speech on Monday was true. Several historians and I determined that we could not say for certain it was true and so it never went into the speech. (Even when the president says something that is technically true, like the infamous "16 words," he can get in big trouble if others raise enough doubts about it. And please do not send me complaints about the "16 words" until you have read and understood the Butler Commission Report.

Presidential statements are subjected to the "can we defend this against an angry horde of reporters" test. Media statements are subjected to "can I produce two sources who told me this, regardless of whether they actually know or are even in a position to know whether this is true." This latter test, as repeated stories about pending Bush-era invasions of Iran attest, is a much, much lower standard of truthiness.

Most of the reporters I have dealt with seem genuinely interested in reporting the truth, but none seem as constrained and incentivized to do so as most of the policymakers I have dealt with. So you should take what you read in the papers and what you hear on cable news with a grain of salt. And if it is just the reporter saying it, add one or two more grains.

All of the foregoing applies when the media is functioning normally, not in the honeymoon swoon phase we have gone through these past 100 days. What concerns me about the fawning coverage of Obama is not so much the fundamental unfairness of it, nor even the tedium of it (though I do confess to some morbid curiosity to see how good the Obama team really is at dealing with the fastballs that are usually thrown in the major leagues and not the tee-balls they have swung at thus far). Rather, what concerns me is that the marketplace of ideas could become dysfunctional.

I am confident Obama will stick to the truth, if he confronts the same vigorous media scrutiny Bush or even Clinton confronted. I expect that to happen, but it is getting overdue.

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