Opinions

Obama's control of the press is a dangerous precedent for a free republic

A friend told me he was in a cab in a large East Coast city when he struck up a conversation with its driver, a Polish immigrant, and asked the guy about the differences between the two countries. The driver answered: "You get so much propaganda here. You get it all the time. We do not get this much in Poland."

We both chuckled at the story. That was then, this is now as the White House scrambles to stuff all the snakes back into its can after one of President Barack Obama's closest aides outed the administration's snuggle-buns relationship with some members of the Washington press corps.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes -- a wannabe novelist and, somehow, Obama's right-hand guy on foreign policy -- inexplicably told The New York Times Magazine the Washington press corps increasingly is composed of ignorant reporters. "They literally know nothing," he told the interviewer.

In the deeply troubling piece, Rhodes painted them as young, hurried, not-very-bright, compliant boobs unwittingly complicit in the administration's creation of an "echo chamber" of support. In other words, they easily fall for the company line -- its "narrative" -- and dash off to parrot its storyline on social and more traditional media to the utter delight of Rhodes and others.

He pointed to the coziness between the administration and the press; to the slick public relations effort going well beyond spin -- read propaganda -- to peddle, for instance, Obama's Iran nuclear deal; and, the veritable ease in doing all that and much more as it spreads its message unimpeded by filter.

Rhodes' assistant, Ned Price, even detailed for The Times how the White House employs its press briefings -- with the help of its "force multipliers" and media "compadres" -- to accomplish its goals.

"I'll give them some color," Price said, "and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they'll be putting this message out on their own."

Ben Norton, a politics staff writer at Salon, pointed out "the most shockingly Orwellian moment in the (Times) article is when Tanya Somanader, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, openly insisted to the Times, 'People construct their own sense of source and credibility now ... They elect who they're going to believe.'

"'This view, that source and credibility, and perhaps even facts themselves, are individual and arbitrary is the death knell for journalism.'"

That could be true, but the craft began gasping for breath when "advocacy journalism" and all it entails -- shading this, ignoring that, pushing an agenda -- blossomed. It is but a short step from there to where we are today.

Norton points out Noam Chomsky and co-author Edward Herman in "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," observed U.S. news outlets "frequently serve as handmaiden(s) of government, military and corporate interests."

They wrote, "The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well-positioned to shape and constrain media policy."

That the Obama administration tries to control and shape the press is not surprising. It is in its DNA. With mindless media help, it has propagandized everything from "Obamacare" to gun control to JV-team ISIS. It has limited photographers' access to Obama to "official" photos, and tightly controls information. In 2009, then-White House Communications Director Anita Dunn even bragged the administration snaps a leash on reporters by giving them only information it controls.

A 2013 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization dedicated to press freedoms, concludes Obama has mounted the "most aggressive" effort since President Richard M. Nixon to silence government officials and the media at large.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of all this -- and no need to mention Facebook's alleged suppression and manipulation of all news conservative -- is that Rhodes' revelations already are yesterday's news. That bodes ill for a nation that hopes to remain vital and free.

The backbone of our republic is the free flow of accurate, timely information uncontrolled by government masters. It requires standards and crusty, old editors. It is not happening today, and the nation's interests go unserved.

Thomas Jefferson, sometimes a newspaper fan, wrote in 1787: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people ... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

A later, more jaundiced Jefferson observation is more cogent nowadays. "Advertisements," he fumed, "contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper."

From Rhodes' account, that may be increasingly true.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro communications.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins is a former Associated Press reporter, managing editor of the Anchorage Times, an editor of the Voice of the Times and former editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.

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