Progressive Bloggers Are Doing the White House’s Job

This administration enjoys an advantage afforded no other: a partisan media that has its back, minute-by-minute.

US President Barack Obama speaks with traveling journalists on board Air Force One on April 28, 2010. Obama met more Americans yet to feel the nascent economic recovery, on a heartland tour to fire up the Democratic campaign to avoid a drubbing in November's mid-term elections. 
AFP/Getty Images
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
May 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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