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Obama interview with Rolling Stone in Alaska raises questions on media access

  • Author: Paul Farhi
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2015

President Barack Obama went to the Arctic last week — and Rolling Stone magazine got more than a T-shirt out of it.

During a three-day trip to Alaska, a visit the White House hailed as the first by a sitting president to the Arctic, Obama briefly traveled to the tiny village of Kotzebue.

While there, he spent about a quarter of his time in an exclusive interview and private photo shoot with Rolling Stone. The encounter wasn't on the president's official schedule, and the White House made no formal mention of it to reporters covering the trip.

The unannounced interview appears to be part of the White House's media strategy of giving exclusive access to news outlets deemed sympathetic to the president's message on a particular topic, in a dramatic setting that showcases and reinforces that message. In this case, the topic of the interview was climate change, which was the theme of Obama's Alaska trip.

In July, Obama went to a prison in Oklahoma — the first visit by a sitting president to a federal corrections facility — to advocate for prison reform. He gave special access during that trip to Vice News and its chief executive, Shane Smith, for a documentary Vice is producing for HBO about the criminal justice system.

The tactic enables the president to present his views in an additional forum long after the press has moved on from its coverage of an event or presidential trip.

Obama spent four hours total on Wednesday in Kotzebue, a community of 3,200 residents about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle in northwestern Alaska. During his visit, Obama spoke for about 20 minutes to a crowd that filled a school gym, then met with local and regional officials, and youth leaders and elders.

He also viewed a sea wall on Kotzebue Sound that was built to protect the village from storm surges that have become more powerful and destructive as sea ice has melted.

These public events consumed about the same amount of the president's time in Kotzebue as an interview with Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and a shorter session posing for Rolling Stone's photographers at the scenic sound (a pool of press photographers had taken photos of Obama there earlier). The interview and photo session with the magazine took about an hour, according to White House spokesman Frank Benenati.

Benenati declined to explain why the president devoted so much of his time during the historic visit to speaking with a writer from New York.

He said that the press pool traveling with the president to Kotzebue "was aware" that the interview would take place during the trip.

But Colleen McCain Nelson, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was the "pooler," or proxy for traveling print journalists, said there was no official announcement about what the president was doing.

"The White House never offered confirmation or any details about the interview in Kotzebue," Nelson said via email. As a result, she said, she didn't include information about it in her pool reports.

Nelson added that she and other pool reporters were aware that an interview was taking place because Goodell had been traveling with the pool. At one point, the pool was held in vans while Rolling Stone's photographers shot photos of Obama at the seaside, she said.

The White House made no mention of the interview and photo shoot in video summaries of the president's trip posted on the White House's Facebook page.

Goodell, a veteran environmental writer, declined to comment.

Goodell has written extensively about climate change and the urgency of combating it, a view generally held by Obama, who said in a speech during his Alaska trip, "Those who want to ignore the science (of climate change), they are increasingly alone. They're on their own shrinking island."

Rolling Stone's reputation was damaged last year by its publication of an article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to be false. The magazine retracted the story and apologized for it; it has been sued for defamation by a university administrator and members of a fraternity named in the story by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely.

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