Are Republicans Better Than Democrats at Spinning the Press?

In Politico's just-released annual survey of the White House press corps, reporters again complained about their lack of access to President Obama.
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In Politico's just-released annual survey of the White House press corps, reporters again complained about their lack of access to President Obama. Over 60 percent of correspondents who had also covered other administrations believed that the Obama administration is "least friendly to the press." In a previous survey, 41 percent of White House correspondents reported that the George W. Bush administration was more transparent with the press. The conventional explanation for reporters' unhappiness with this administration is that the White House is bypassing the traditional media to reach the American people where they are - from The Colbert Report to Snapchat. But my recent interviews with spokespeople for the Obama and Bush administrations and the reporters who cover them also suggest something else: that Republicans work harder than Democrats to make friends with reporters and shape press coverage.

In confidential conversations with reporters for major national outlets who covered the economy under the Obama and Bush administrations, conducted as part of research for the George W. Bush Presidency conference at Hofstra University which will be published later this year, the correspondents were emphatic that Bush administration officials had been more forthcoming with them than the Obama administration. One journalist, for example, explained that "the Bush public affairs people across the administration were generally more forthcoming about what they knew and more willing to share that with reporters ... [In the Obama administration there is] less fruitful conversation on the front end to shape stories and thinking than there is in other administrations, where you're just kind of talking back and forth."

However, reporters did not claim that the Bush administration gave them more actual information. Rather, Bush administration spokespeople appeared to offer reporters greater explanations of their thinking and decisions and more access to senior administration officials for off-the-record conversations. In fact, the same reporter who said that the Bush administration engaged in more "back and forth" with journalists believed this to be the case because senior Bush administration officials "were more frequently interested in spinning and shading the truth than the Obama officials."

Another reason why Republicans may work harder to shape media coverage is because they perceive a liberal media bias. "Think about it," one former Bush administration spokeswoman told me. "The only member of the media to join the Bush [administration] was Tony Snow, [while] half the D.C. press corps joined the Obama [administration]!" As a result, she said, "we had to work harder to convince the media" of the administration's positions. Another Bush administration spokeswoman told me that being a Republican is "like being a woman. You have to work twice as hard being a Republican, because there's already a prevailing narrative ... so we try to overcompensate." She said that Bush administration spokespeople were therefore very social with the press. "We had a lot of fun with them," she said. "We had our own DMZ [de-militarized zone] ... where we could hang out. That was us helping them help us."

Oddly, the perception of a liberal media bias actually seemed to strain relations between reporters and the Obama administration. One journalist for a major national newspaper, for example, explained that "Democrats tend to regard the media as friendly, or think it ought to be friendly, and to respond with disappointment and anger when it behaves otherwise." By contrast, he explained, "Republican appointees tend to have a transactional relationship with the media ... They believe you are not on their side and aren't therefore as angry when you are not on their side ... There is less expectation, less disappointment, less emotional volatility in the relationship." Of course, another possibility is that, if it is true that reporters tend to be more liberal, journalists were predisposed to like the Obama administration, and therefore were more surprised and angered themselves when Obama officials did not provide them with the level of access they wanted or expected.

A recent study found that just seven percent of American journalists identify with the Republican party. This suggests that a liberal media bias may be real. However, the bias may actually be against Democrats who fail to live up to reporters' grand expectations for them - and redound to the benefit of the Republican political operatives who correspondents are surprised to find to be more helpful than expected.

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