President Obama’s media critique is missing self-reflection

President Barack Obama​ commented on the state of journalism this week, speaking at the Toner Prize ceremony.

It’s a thoughtful analysis from a voracious, long-time consumer and, it seems, critic of the news that’s worth reading or watching if you’re interested in the role of a free press in a democracy.

As I said a few weeks ago, some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, but all of us are responsible for reversing it.

I say this not because of some vague notion of “political correctness,” which seems to be increasingly an excuse to just say offensive things or lie out loud. I say this not out of nostalgia, because politics in America has always been tough. Anybody who doubts that should take a look at what Adams and Jefferson and some of our other Founders said about each other. I say this because what we’re seeing right now does corrode our democracy and our society. And I’m not one who’s faint of heart. I come from Chicago. Harold Washington once explained that “politics ain’t beanbag.” It’s always been rough and tumble.

But when our elected officials and our political campaign become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect. It creates this vacuum where baseless assertions go unchallenged, and evidence is optional. And as we’re seeing, it allows hostility in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. And that, in turn, tarnishes the American brand.

That said, the irony in President Obama asking journalists to hold power to account, pushing for answers and access, was not lost on the journalists he praised, including Alec MacGillis, the recipient of this year’s Toner Prize.

More than a few people have highlighted why the president is a flawed messenger for any critique of journalism, given his administration’s record on press freedom.

“Obama’s own track record shows that if anyone isn’t being held accountable for the promises he’s made, it’s Obama himself – at least when it comes to the deep-diving investigative journalism he professes to want more of,” writes Sara Morrison in the Guardian.

“On the one hand, it’s a good thing that the President has been more open to new media than any of his predecessors, using Twitter and Instagram and Facebook to connect directly with Americans,” writes Mathew Ingram in Fortune. “But journalists who have been frozen out by the Obama administration complain that this feel-good strategy also acts as an end-run around the traditional media, and this strategy has insulated the government from direct questioning.”

“What makes Obama’s speech so unstomachable is the way he praises reporters at an award ceremony by calling their work “indispensable,” “incredible,” “worth honoring” and essential to democracy while simultaneously blocking honest press queries with all the formidable energies of his office,” wrote Jack Shafer in Politico.

As readers of this blog know, these criticisms have merit.

From flawed compliance with the Freedom of Information Act to limiting access to scientists or photographers or using the Espionage Act to prosecute media or cracking down on whisteblowers, the Obama administration’s record on press freedom is deeply problematic.

I wish the President had shown more introspection about his tenure in office, particularly with respect to acknowledging not only failing to support making the Freedom of Information Act policy and reforms he proposed but the fact that agencies actively lobbied against them.

If President Obama had done so, and publicly laid out how he would work to address those failures and the unmet promise of his administration’s commitments to open government in his last year in office, perhaps his remarks would have been received differently by the journalists he praised and criticized.

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