The usually-cocksure Jay Carney has rarely appeared so uncomfortable.
“What I can tell you is that this president believes strongly in the First Amendment and is a strong defender of the First Amendment,” Carney insisted to a packed house of angry reporters last Tuesday afternoon.
The White House had just been freshly stung by news that the Department of Justice had secretly raided the phone records of up to 100 Associated Press reporters, looking to identify the news organization’s private sources.
“He believes strongly in the need for the press to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism,” Carney continued, contorting his face between looks of concern and annoyance as question after question highlighted the press corps’ newly discovered skepticism.
“How can it be unfettered if you’re worried about having your phones –,” started one reporter.
Carney quickly dodged.
“I am very understanding of the questions on this issue and appreciate the nature of the questions,” he offered.
While this full-frontal assault on the media — and more importantly, news consumers — may suddenly have the press rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, it’s far from the first time Obama and his allies have used the power of the office to try to silence their critics.
It began gently enough.
Back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama traveled to Manhattan for a special mission: a personal sit-down with Fox News chief Roger Ailes. The goal of the meeting? Obama wanted Sean Hannity to ease up on the criticism.
Columnist and author Zev Chafets recently detailed the exchange for the first time in his book “Roger Ailes: Off Camera”:
“After some pleasantries, Obama got to the point. He was concerned about the way he was being portrayed on Fox, and his real issue wasn’t the news; it was Sean Hannity, who had been battering him every night at nine (and on his radio show, which Fox doesn’t own or control).”
Ailes, of course, wouldn’t change a thing about Hannity’s presentation, consoling the candidate with the reality that his supporters weren’t likely to be Hannity watchers. After a few more minutes, sensing a fruitless battle, Obama’s aide Robert Gibbs abruptly pulled the plug on the meeting.
Then, a single week into his presidency, Obama started what’s become a tradition for the president: blaming Rush Limbaugh.
“You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,” he told a room full of Republican leaders at the White House while pushing his $787-billion stimulus plan.
A few weeks later, energetic, long-time CNBC reporter Rick Santelli caused waves within the Obama White House when he made his famous “rant heard around the world,” credited with jump starting the tea party movement.
That caused White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to take the unusual step of responding directly to Santelli during an interview on NBC, saying the CNBC host “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“I would encourage him to read the president’s plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows,” Gibbs said. “I’d be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I’d be happy to buy him a cup of coffee — decaf.”
A month later, Santelli’s CNBC colleague Jim Cramer would have his own criticisms of Obama’s economic policy, calling the president’s budget agenda “radical.”
“This is the greatest wealth destruction I’ve seen by a president,” Cramer exclaimed.
Gibbs reacted to those criticisms through a question from NBC’s Tom Costello, but in the end, it would be Jon Stewart — a loyal Obama supporter and host of “The Daily Show” — who would famously unload on Cramer a couple weeks later.
Meanwhile, the White House was growing increasingly frustrated with then-Fox News host Glenn Beck.
In October 2008, prior to Obama’s winning the White House, Fox News announced Beck would be taking its 5 p.m. ET time slot. Beck’s first show on the cable news juggernaut aired on Jan. 19, 2009.
Obama was sworn in the next day.
Beck’s show became a huge ratings success in the challenging time slot, with Beck relentlessly hammering the president.
“Beck’s indignant critiques of the Obama administration and gloomy outlook on the nation’s financial health have found near-instant resonance,” Matea Gold wrote for the Los Angeles Times.
“His eponymous 2 p.m. PST program averaged nearly 2.2 million viewers last month — double the number the time slot attracted the previous February and a remarkable amount for the afternoon. That made ‘Glenn Beck’ the third-most-watched program in all of cable news for the month, after Bill O’Reilly’s and Sean Hannity’s evening shows.”
But Beck’s anti-Obama antics put him in the crosshairs of angry liberals. In August 2009, a relatively unknown college student named Angelo Carusone struck the first blow, convincing Kraft Foods to drop any association with Beck’s television show. Other advertisers soon followed.
By the end of 2009, the Obama administration joined in and declared war on Fox News. The White House blocked the network’s access to interviews and communications director Anita Dunn publicly accused the network of being “a wing of the Republican Party.”
“[L]et’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is,” she said.
And Dunn had backup.
As The Daily Caller has previously reported, the left-wing advocacy group Media Matters for America had dreamt up that very campaign to discredit Fox News, and within a month Dunn was echoing the talking points to the world.
It was too much for some members of the press to handle, including Jake Tapper, formerly of ABC News.
“It hasn’t escaped our notice that in the last few weeks the White House has decided to declare war on one of our sister organizations saying it’s not a news organization and tell the rest of the news media to not treat them like a news organization,” Tapper said during a press conference with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
“Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to say one of them is not a news organization and the rest of the media should not treat them like one?” Tapper continued.
“That is our opinion,” Gibbs replied.
Days after that exchange, then-Deputy White House Communications Director Jennifer Psaki threatened to put dead fish in “the fox cubby.” She also called FNC “Special Report” anchor Bret Baier a “lunatic,” in emails obtained by Judicial Watch.
Angelo Carusone’s efforts to help the White House attack Fox didn’t go unnoticed. In December 2010, Media Matters hired him to beef up its efforts to take on Fox News. (He’s now the organization’s vice president.)
Then and now, Media Matters’ attacks have been used by the White House as a subtle way to take on its critics. As The Daily Caller previously reported, Media Matters coordinates — or did for a time — its messaging with the White House in weekly phone calls.
Beck’s show on Fox News would eventually end in June 2011. Media Matters even celebrated the show’s ending with a party.
By early 2012, Rush Limbaugh had captured the president’s attention yet again. In the heat of his re-election campaign, Obama took it upon himself to personally console Sandra Fluke — the contraception activist who Limbaugh had famously mocked as “a slut” and “a prostitute” for, as he put it, wanting to be “paid to have sex” — in a widely-publicized phone call.
Limbaugh ultimately issued an apology to Fluke, but Obama’s call lit a fire under liberal activists, including Carusone, who have long been trying to take down the radio host.
“He encouraged me and supported me and thanked me for speaking out about the concerns of American women,” Fluke relayed on MSNBC. “What was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud. And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family would be proud of me. So I just appreciated that very much.”
Seeing an opportunity, Carusone used Media Matters’ resources to mount a pressure campaign, attempting to scare advertisers away from Limbaugh’s show.
And now, with Limbaugh reportedly at odds with radio distributor Cumulous Media, Carusone and Media Matters are pushing all the harder, hoping Limbaugh’s massive reach is narrowed in the split.
As the election wore on, the White House only became more aggressive with the media.
On June 15, 2012, as The Daily Caller’s Neil Munro strolled back to this publication’s Washington offices from a sunny event in the White House Rose Garden, press secretary Jay Carney frantically began phoning Daily Caller editors.
Munro had just interrupted President Obama with an ill-timed question about sweeping executive changes to the immigration system and Carney threw a fit.
“It’s utterly disrespectful to interrupt the president of the United States while pretending you’re a journalist,” Carney exclaimed in one call.
“The White House called and bitched us out vigorously,” Munro told the New York Post. “I haven’t been called on since shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed.”
It was a typical reaction from the White House, where officials are well-known for getting aggressive with reporters who fail to toe the administration’s line.
As Bob Woodward was overhyping being threatened by diminutive economic adviser Gene Sperling in early 2013, a host of more legitimate “me-too” stories started to seep out of the press.
The New York Post’s Maureen Callahan captured one of the more perverse anecdotes:
“’I had a young reporter asking tough, important questions of an Obama Cabinet secretary,’ says one DC veteran. ‘She was doing her job, and they were trying to bully her. In an e-mail, they called her the vilest names — bitch, c–t, a–hole.’”
In contrast, media figures who regularly help the White House advance its agenda are rewarded with access.
Regular viewers of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” were occasionally treated with mid-show text messages directly from the White House, as co-host Mika Brzezinski would read the messages from her Blackberry on-air.
Brzezinski’s MSNBC colleague Ed Schultz detailed the arrangement on his radio show in December of 2009:
“So Mika starts looking at her Blackberry and so does Scarborough and obviously the White House is texting them or emailing them or whatever and they didn’t like the show. Because Arianna had been on there, I’m on there, Howard Dean had been on there and they wanted some balance.
“Now think about that — here’s the White House getting in contact with ‘Morning Joe’ because they’re afraid there’s too many lefties on the air! Now if that’s not sensitivity at its highest level, I don’t know what is! I told ya a few days ago they had rabbit ears! They don’t like anything that’s being said right now, they’re getting beat up!”
And MSNBC’s relationship with the White House went beyond exchanging text messages.
As reported by The Daily Caller, while the White House and Media Matters were engaging in weekly conference calls and meetings, the liberal advocacy group was “pretty much writing [MSNBC’s] prime time,” according to a Media Matters employee.
Last Monday, Obama reportedly called out Rush Limbaugh yet again at a New York City party hosted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, attended by stars like Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.
Obama lamented his inability to overcome Washington gridlock, blaming the radio host.
“I genuinely believe that there are actually Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them,” Obama said. “And, as a consequence, we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government and inhibits our progress.”
As he always does, Limbaugh reacted to Obama’s remarks on his program.
“Now, let me tell you what he’s doing, folks,” Limbaugh said Tuesday. “He is essentially begging any Republican to denounce me. He is fixated on me. He simply cannot get me off his mind. I live rent free in his head. And he is using me as his convenient excuse for not being able to get anything done.”
“He really thinks the Republicans would work with him if it weren’t for me,” he continued. “So he’s telling these Hollywood people — and you got to understand, they’re sitting there and they’re very sympathetic, and they love Obama, and they want Obama to succeed. I’m the guy who said, ‘I hope he fails.'”
As the Justice Department struggles to contain the fallout over its decision to secretly seize phone records from the media, even The New York Times has begun to publicly criticize the Obama administration’s attempts to intimidate the press.
“This action against The A.P., as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press outlined in a letter to Mr. Holder, ‘calls into question the very integrity’ of the administration’s policy toward the press,” the Times’ editors wrote last Wednesday.
“These tactics will not scare us,” they wrote.