WASHINGTON – It was an article of faith among conservatives before Sen. Barack Obama became president, and has persisted through his re-election: America’s first black president and the supposedly liberal mainstream media enjoy a veritable love fest.
The reality, at least among those who cover the president, has been quite a bit different. Reporters have grumbled for several years about being ignored, dismissed and even insulted by White House press officials. More than usual, the White House’s relationship with the press corps has been marked by simmering tension and even mutual contempt.
And now the temperature has been raised to a boil.
The Justice Department’s revelation that it secretly subpoenaed the Associated Press’ phone records in order to hunt down the source of a national security leak has elicited nearly unanimous criticism and condemnation of the department’s action from news organizations.
The media’s united front was spelled out in a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a group that includes the major television networks, magazine publishers and newspapers. It called the government’s subpoena of the AP records “an overreaching dragnet” by the department and demanded the return of phone logs.
“The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case,” the letter read. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech and the press.
Despite the conservative portrayal of the press as Obama’s handmaiden, relations between reporters and the White House have never been sunny. Journalists have often been frustrated by what they see as a disdainful and belittling attitude toward them by members of the White House’s communications office, headed by Dan Pfeiffer.
Many White House journalists have been on the receiving end of scathing assessments of their work from White House press officials, replete with four-letter words and an occasional shouting match. Some have characterized it as a tactic to nudge them into accepting the administration’s view.
Reporters also have resented being bypassed as the White House takes its message directly to the public via social media, blogs and its website.
“This is a White House that tries as much as possible through digital media to cover itself,” said Scott Wilson, The Washington Post’s veteran White House correspondent. However, he added, “in a time of scandal, the independent media becomes much more important to them.”