When Jay Carney was grilled at length by Jonathan Karl of ABC News over an email outlining administration talking points in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attack, it was not, by the reckoning of many observers, the White House press secretary's finest hour. Carney was alternately defensive and dismissive, arguably fueling a bonfire he was trying to tamp down.
But Carney needn't have worried. He had plenty of backup.
He had The New Republic's Brian Beutler dismissing Benghazi as "nonsense." He had Slate's David Weigel, along with The Washington Post's Plum Line blog, debunking any claim that the new email was a "smoking gun." Media Matters for America labeled Benghazi a "hoax." Salon wrote that the GOP had a "demented Benghazi disease." Daily Kos featured the headline: "Here's Why the GOP Is Fired Up About Benghazi—and Here's Why They're Wrong." The Huffington Post offered "Three Reasons Why Reviving Benghazi Is Stupid—for the GOP."
It's been a familiar pattern since President Obama took office in 2009: When critics attack, the White House can count on a posse of progressive writers to ride to its rescue. Pick an issue, from the Affordable Care Act to Ukraine to the economy to controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi, and you'll find the same voices again and again, on the Web and on Twitter, giving the president cover while savaging the opposition. And typically doing it with sharper tongues and tighter arguments than the White House itself.
While the bond between presidential administrations and friendly opinion-shapers goes back as far as the nation itself, no White House has ever enjoyed the luxury that this one has, in which its arguments and talking points can be advanced on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. No longer must it await the evening news or the morning op-ed page to witness the fruits of its messaging efforts.
Credit the explosion of social media, the fragmentation of news, the erosion of the institutional press. Fortuitously for the president, the modern media landscape not only provides ample space for the expression of pure partisanship, it actively encourages it. Backing your friends and belittling your enemies is a healthy business model, one rewarded by a torrent of clicks, retweets, "likes," and links. "The incentives are to play ball," says one former liberal blogger, "not to speak truth to power. More clicks. More action. Partisanship drives clicks."
The Obama administration had the good fortune to come to power just when the forces undermining the traditional media became truly disruptive, creating a Web-based royalty. And those who came of age, who mastered the new tools, were largely in step with the administration—in many respects mirroring the young Turks in Obama's ranks who used those tools in similar ways to get the president elected.
The new landscape has allowed the White House communications shop do what it does best: Figure out new ways to bypass the mainstream media. It holds off-the-record briefings, sometimes with Obama in the room, for select progressive bloggers from outlets such as TPM and ThinkProgress. (More than once, a National Journal reporter who previously worked at a liberal outlet has been invited as well.)
The outreach to progressive bloggers is part of a multipronged White House media strategy that also involves briefings with the likes of bureau chiefs, prominent columnists, even conservative writers such as Byron York and David Brooks, although certainly with each group, the mileage varies.
Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post's Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.
The hope, from the White House's perspective, is that progressive media elites sway the mainstream press. "Obviously, all journalists are reading each other on Twitter," says Tim Miller, executive director of the conservative America Rising PAC and a former spokesman for Jon Huntsman. "If you've got very articulate, passionate bloggers on the left who are making arguments why something shouldn't be news, that might have a shaming effect on other journalists who might not want to be mocked or who might be convinced by their arguments."
Certainly, the writers don't always do the Democrats' dirty work. Zaid Jilani, a former blogger for ThinkProgress, an arm of the progressive Center for American Progress, said the White House reacted angrily when he wrote a post critical of the administration's Afghanistan policy. Other progressive writers say they have gotten pushback from Obama aides when they haven't toed the line on issues such as surveillance and immigration.
Still, Jilani worries that some endorse the White House's positions not because they always agree with them, but because they don't want to give the GOP any fodder. "That's a hard thing to separate," he says.
Joan Walsh, an editor-at-large at Salon, brought this tension to a head last year when she slammed Klein for being too critical of the Obamacare rollout and, in essence, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. "On one hand, yes, it's important for Democrats to acknowledge when government screws up, and to fix it," Walsh wrote. "On the other hand, when liberals rush conscientiously to do that, they only encourage the completely unbalanced and unhinged coverage of whatever the problem might be."
Unbalanced. Interesting word for a card-carrying member of the progressive media to use.
This article appears in the May 10, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Obama’s First Line of Defense.