Everybody’s a media critic these days — and Barack Obama is an astute one. But for those who remember certain aspects of his presidency, he’s got a bit of a credibility problem.
He’s certainly right when he frets that America is being torn apart by its dysfunctional media system, as he explained in an interview with the Atlantic to promote his new memoir. “I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story,” he said.
“We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us.”
And in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last Sunday, he told Scott Pelley that local journalism may be the key. It’s “where we have to start, in terms of rebuilding the social trust we need for democracy to work.”
I fully agree. My recent book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” explored this dire problem: More than 2,000 American newspapers have gone out of business in the past 15 years, sometimes leaving entire regions without reliable sources of news.
Obama takes a stab at offering solutions, telling Pelley a little vaguely that “we have to work at the local level” and “find ways to … bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction.”
But before we herald the former president as some sort of media visionary, let’s cast our minds back to his own administration’s record with the press.
Here’s how I’d sum it up: Not great.
When Obama entered office, he promised the most transparent administration in American history. He did not deliver. His administration set records for stonewalling or rejecting Freedom of Information requests. When I came to Washington in May 2016, I was stunned to realize he had not given an in-depth interview to The Washington Post since 2009.
Instead, he largely engaged in what I called Transparency Lite. He did tons of interviews, but many of them involved celebrity conversationalists who pitched softball questions. During a visit to Vietnam, he chatted with Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trotting TV chef. He got raves for his interview with the comedian Zach Galifianakis on the faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” And he hung out in podcaster Marc Maron’s garage, talking about fatherhood and overcoming fear.
Great for brand-building. Not so great for serious accountability.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The Obama administration repeatedly used an obscure century-old federal statute — the Espionage Act — to pursue government sources who provided information to journalists. His Justice Department’s war on leakers was, in the words of former Post editor Len Downie, “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
Obama’s administration continued the punishing treatment of a National Security Agency whistleblower, Thomas Drake, and threatened to send James Risen, then a revered New York Times investigative reporter, to jail for insisting on protecting his confidential source.
Maybe worst of all, his administration went after James Rosen, a Fox News reporter, using security-badge access records to track his comings and goings from the State Department. Shockingly, it even called him a co-conspirator in a leak about North Korea’s nuclear program. “They traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report. They obtained a search warrant for the reporter’s personal emails,” The Post reported in 2013.
Eventually, the government dropped its pursuits of Risen and Rosen, and, perhaps aware of how history would judge all of this, the Obama administration softened its stance. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder publicly declared that he never wanted journalists to go to jail for doing their work. And after collaborative talks between the Justice Department and members of the press, the department agreed to new guidelines.
Still, Risen took a dim view of Obama’s legacy.
“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama,” he wrote in late 2016.
Trump, of course, has undermined the press at every turn, urging his followers to mistrust truthful reporting and calling journalists the “enemy of the people.” His Justice Department seized the phone and email records of a New York Times reporter, and used the Espionage Act to jail a journalistic source, Reality Winner, for leaking a classified document about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Risen quoted Obama’s self-defense: “I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and the need for journalists to pursue every lead and every angle. … when you hear stories about us cracking down on whistle-blowers or whatnot, we’re talking about a really small sample.”
I’m glad that Obama sees the mess we’re in now.
And I heartily agree with his emphasis on local journalism and the way rampant misinformation is damaging our democracy.
But I haven’t forgotten what happened when he was in charge.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.