Obama slams new media, curries favor with skeptical establishment news outlets

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Following three weeks of unusually skeptical media coverage, President Barack Obama tried to flatter the nation’s established media by slamming their rivals in new media outlets.

“In an age when all it takes to attract attention is a Twitter handle and some followers, it’s easier than ever to get it wrong,” he told roughly 100 established TV personalities and journalists among the audience members at the exclusive, invite-only Gridiron Club’s annual dinner.

“But it’s more important than ever to get it right,” said Obama, who in the last few weeks has repeatedly misstated GOP policies, and has exaggerated the impact of his the budget-trimming sequester deal.

“I am grateful for all the journalists who do one of the toughest jobs there is with integrity and insight and dedication — and a sense of purpose — that goes beyond a business model or a news cycle,” he insisted as he finished a joke-laden speech, which capped the entertainment at the elite social club’s dinner.

The reference to “a business model” was likely intended to tag many new media companies, which broadcast news that is interesting to their outside-the-Beltway readers and viewers, rather than less dramatic news deemed important by elite journalists and editors.

The reference to the news cycle is a dig at the media’s willingness to focus on interesting scandals and crises, including those in his administration. Many elite media professionals are scornful of such coverage, saying it detracts from their deep analysis of government’s operations and of opportunities for new programs.

Media figures in attendance included Jim Lehrer of PBS, “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer, MSNBC host Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer from CNN. The total attendance, including the many guests, was roughly 650 people.

Obama’s flattery came after three weeks in which several established media outlets produced articles and segments that were unusually critical of the administration’s alarming claims about the sequester, which is expected to cut 2013 spending by roughly 1 percent.

For example, the Washington Post’s most famous journalist, Bob Woodward, said the president had misstated terms of the the 2011 budget deal that produced the sequester, and he exposed an personal effort by Obama’s top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, to roll back criticisms of the president.

The newspaper’s “fact checker” columnist also strongly criticized the accuracy of several Obama statements about the sequester.

The sometimes-critical sequester-related reports were markedly different from the positive coverage that the administration has enjoyed for its handling of issues such as unemployment, wages, Wall Street, immigration, social-issues and foreign policy.

However, it is not clear if the media’s critical sequester coverage will continue for long, or if it will be extended to other issues as the 2014 mid-term election approaches.

Obama’s normally aggressive response to unwelcome media was underlined by his after-dinner jabs at Woodward.

“It’s been noted that Bob Woodward sends his regrets [for not attending the dinner] … Who knew Gene could be so intimidating?  (Laughter.)  Or let me phrase it differently — who knew anybody named Gene could be this intimidating?,” Obama said, according to the White House transcript of the president’s speech.

Obama continued his passive-aggressive pitch at Woodward for three paragraphs, saying “I know that some folks think we responded to Woodward too aggressively … [but] we’re all friends again.”

“As you may have heard, Bob invited Gene over to his place. And Bob says he actually thinks that I should make it too. And I might take him up on the offer.  I mean, nothing says ‘not a threat’ like showing up at somebody’s house with guys with machine guns.  (Laughter.)“

After his jabs at Woodward, at Fox News’s Ed Henry and at other media outlets. the president ended his speech with extensive flattery of legacy media outlets.

He delivered the flattery even though journalists have complained since 2009 about his aggressive press aides, the tight curbs on reporters’ access to White House officials, and his personal reluctance to take questions from media.

For example, at most of his press conferences, including the March 1 event called to raise public concern about the pending sequester, Obama only takes questions from picked establishment reporters. His practice deters attending reporters from shouting questions at the president, and gives reporters an incentive to ingratiate themselves with press aides in the hope they will be picked to ask a question during the next press conference.

“This year alone, reporters have exposed corruption here at home and around the world,” said Obama, without mentioning any of the domestic scandals that have surrounded his administration.

Those scandals include his controversial response to the Sept. 11 jihadi attack in Benghazi, his pre-election rollback of immigration enforcement, his claim of authority to declare when the Senate is in session, and his administration’s failure to indict Jon Corzine, a former Democratic Senator and governor whose investment firms collapse amid claims of missing funds.

Reporters “have risked everything to bring us stories from places like Syria and Kenya, stories that need to be told … how something that happens or doesn’t happen halfway around the world or here in Washington can have consequences for American families,” he declared.

“These are extraordinary times … [and while] we’ll always have disagreements, I believe that we share the belief that a free press — a press that questions us, that holds us accountable, that sometimes gets under our skin — is absolutely an essential part of our democracy,” he claimed.

There’s little danger, however, of much media criticism during the next several months.

In fact, several of the skits produced by Gridiron members during the evening were markedly favorable to the president.

In a skit about the sequester, for example, the club’s journalists put the blame on Congress, not Obama, according to a report from the one print reporter allowed to observe the festivities:

You’d think a sound solution here would be a real no-brainer
They play a game of chicken just to see who’s more insane-er
The culprits, their identities could not be plainer
Nancy, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid and Speaker Boehner
Oh, mandatory legislative budget sequestration.

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