Back in January, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz examined the relationship between the Obama campaign and the political press and found them to be something of "an odd duck," describing the campaign as unusually "aloof" and protective. "All traveling campaigns have a bubble-like quality," Kurtz noted, "but Obama seems unusually insulated." Kurtz went on to note an incident that struck him as a bit of a peculiarity:
One moment of absurdity came Tuesday, when reporters on the press bus were asked to dial into a conference call in which Obama announced a congressman's endorsement -- even though the candidate was nearby and just as easily could have delivered the news in person to the bus captives. Obama answered a few questions, but reporters are generally placed on mute after they speak so there can be no follow-up.
Since then, it seems that from the press' perspective, what the campaign has done to address this aloofness can be summed up in two words: not much. In fact, the matter has recently bloomed from an intriguing curiosity to a full-blown complaint. Ben Smith has obtained a copy of a letter sent by the "Washington bureau chiefs of six leading news organizations to the Obama campaign." Sent in the wake of the campaign's decision to fly the travelling press corps out to Chicago while Obama, in secret, escaped to Diane Feinstein's house to powwow with Senator Hillary Clinton, the letter complains about "access" overall and "about being deceived by campaign aides."
From the letter:
The decision to mislead reporters is a troubling one. We hope this does not presage a relationship with the Obama campaign that is not based on a mutual respect for the truth. Our joint mission is to cover the candidate on behalf of our millions of worldwide viewers and readers. Those individuals expect truthful and fair coverage from us. Your campaign expects nothing short of that from us as well. Surely we should expect the same from you. We sincerely hope we can expect a relationship based on mutual trust in the coming months of coverage.
Going forward, we know from experience that covering a presidential campaign requires that some representatives of the press corps be with, or near, the Senator at all times as part of the "security package," just as the White House press corps is with the president. There may be times when the Senator needs to address the press corps about unexpected and dramatic news events, and there may be times when history demands the press corps be in close proximity to the Senator. This is standard operating procedure for the President of the United States, a job to which he aspires, and for presumptive nominees.
Compounding the complaint stemming from the June 6th Great Escape to the Feinstein Compound is an incident from last night, where the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, who ended up sequestered to a pool house during an Obama fundraiser. This marks a step up from the men's room that the Clinton team used as the Texas Primary press room, but still - one expects the requirement of pool reporting to not be taken quite so literally.
There are components to Obama's media strategy that make a certain amount of sense. From all outward appearances, the campaign is feeling a little burned at the ineffective way the media has gone about batting down the most pernicious and egregious rumors and innuendos that have been floated about Obama, and, indeed, the press has more or less proven themselves to be more adept at promoting those rumors than they have been at debunking them. (Fox News' Brit Hume was peddling more of this sort of nonsense just last night.) And, of course, the Obama camp has, in the incidents featuring Jeremiah Wright's sermons, Michelle Obama's misstatements, and HuffPo's own Mayhill Fowler and her capturing of Obama's "bitter" comments, felt the searing heat that comes when the wrong clip gets widely disseminated through the media. But going back to the Kurtz article from January, Obama's campaign manager David Axelrod has suggested that the aloofness was all part of the grand plan:
But the contrast in his press strategy is striking, not just with Clinton's campaign -- which aggressively lobbies journalists around the clock -- but also with the Bush White House and the Clinton White House before that. And that, Obama aides say, is by design.
The Clinton camp, says David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, "is hyperbolic about it. What we don't do is spend six hours a day trying to persuade you guys that red is green or up is down. . . . Their own spin was 'We are the biggest, baddest street gang on the block.'
"We can't be pacifists and cede the battlefield," Axelrod says, but "what's powering this campaign is a rejection of tactical politics."
What the Obama campaign may be running up against here, is that the strategy has changed now that he's facing off against John McCain instead of trying to win a primary contest against a Democratic rival. The contrast struck by the Obama campaign while running against Clinton was a wise one - as anyone who ever had the unfortunate experience of listening to a Clinton campaign conference call can attest, the atmosphere was just as "aggressive" as Axelrod maintains, and (in my opinion, anyway) often searingly unpleasant. But McCain is a different story altogether - having famously courted the media as "his base," his cordial relationship with the travelling press corps threatens to redound to Obama's detriment by comparison.
And, of course, this recent letter suggests that the Obama campaign is already falling short of standard, suggesting that a change in strategy may be a good move. It's clear that the campaign harbors certain longstanding concerns - as evidenced by the launch of their own rumor-debunking Fight The Smears website and the full-tilt Michelle Obama charm offensive, underway in earnest this week. But an affable relationship with the press has its advantages - witness how the press continually presents John McCain as some sort of town hall oratorical genius, when in reality, he's extraordinarily gaffe prone in that format. Going forward, Obama's ability to find a happy medium with the press might be a make-or-break concern.