Spinning the News Cycle

Weeks ago, President Barack Obama played a game of basketball against Clark Kellogg, an analyst for CBS Sports and a former NBA player. The contest, a variation on the shoot-around game H-O-R-S-E, aired during the network’s coverage of the NCAA tournament. It started badly for Mr. Obama, who quickly fell to within one missed shot of losing. Then he rallied, swishing goal after goal from beyond the three-point line. Mr. Kellogg, meanwhile, appeared to choke. After securing his unlikely victory, the president addressed the cameras. “I guarantee you Clark missed a couple of those on purpose, but it was only because he didn’t know he was going to end up losing,” he said. “You can’t give me that kind of room.”

And that, in miniature, is the story of Mr. Obama’s relationship with the press. Time and again, he has turned up in positions that, to observers in the media, looked all but hopeless. Each time, pundits have pleaded with him to abandon his measured, methodical approach in favor of more radical measures. And each time, he has ignored their advice—and cruised to victory, or at least some messy version of it.

This dynamic was most pronounced during his presidential campaign, when practically every week some op-ed mandarin was advising him—always in vain—to get vicious with Hillary Clinton/John McCain/Sarah Palin. It reached its apotheosis in the run-up to the March 21 passage of his health care bill, the Obama administration’s signal achievement so far. “When the history of President Barack Obama’s first year in office is written, scholars will try to answer this puzzling question: How did a gifted, charismatic young Democrat—who won the White House by a large margin and brought in huge Congressional majorities—manage NOT to enact fundamental health care reform, a goal his party has been seeking since Truman?” That was Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman, writing in August 2009. By the time of Mr. Obama’s January 27 State of the Union speech, the entire Beltway press corps was singing in harmony. Politico.com set the pitch, as it so often does. “As the Obama administration marks its first birthday, there is no reason to shop around for the perfect present,” wrote John F. Harris and Carol E. Lee. “What President Barack Obama needs most is obvious: a new political strategy.”

To paraphrase Howard Fineman: When the history of the coverage of Barack Obama is written, scholars will try to answer this puzzling question: How did the press keep blowing it? The answer has a lot to do with the unwillingness or inability of journalists to see things in terms other than their own. Mr. Obama has often spoken, never approvingly, about the modern media machine and its continuous, insatiable need for fresh grist. Last June, for instance, he grew testy when pressed for a response to the Iranian regime’s harsh put-down of democracy protests. “I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I’m not, O.K.?”

Those closest to the president see things in much the same way. “People in the news media are trying to make news every day, more so than they used to, and more so around politics in particular,” says Joel Benenson, lead pollster for President Obama. “You get these massive misinterpretations very quickly because everyone’s so anxious to declare a trend.”

Since actual news events like elections and floor votes are no more frequent than they were a decade or two ago, the tendency is to fill the gaps with horse-race journalism. “There’s a consistent rush to judgment and to declare winners and losers before anything has happened, on a timetable that has nothing to do with reality,” says Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist. Mr. Rich is not wholly innocent. Last summer, not long after Mr. Fineman wrote his bit of future history, Mr. Rich used his column to lament “Obama’s Squandered Summer.” He chided the president for insisting that managing the news cycle was not part of his job: “His White House has a duty to push back against the 24-hour news cycle, every 24 hours if necessary, when it threatens to derail his agenda, the nation’s business, or both.” He now acknowledges that he underestimated the wisdom in Mr. Obama’s stubbornness. “His defiance of the 24/7 news cycle, certainly in the case of health care, has paid off,” he says. “He’s obviously taking a certain joy in defying it.”

In keeping with Mr. Obama’s rhetoric, the view from inside the administration is that the media meta-narrative is something to be regarded, if at all, with ironic detachment. “It’s more a game members of the media play against each other than a game they’re playing against him,” says one administration official. “It’s not how he defines victory by any stretch.”

This amused condescension is, to some degree, a posture, says Tracy Sefl, a Democratic media strategist and senior vice president of Navigators Global, a Washington communications consultancy. “If Obama didn’t believe the news cycle was important, he wouldn’t have such a robust communications apparatus,” says Ms. Sefl. But no president, no matter how obsessed with managing the media, could possibly afford to engage with it on the hyper-granular level it now operates on. “If the White House did the same dance that the press does on the minute-by-minute news cycle basis, I can’t imagine anyone there would have the stamina to get up every day to do their jobs,” she says.

Whether the Beltway press is confused by Mr. Obama’s mixed signals, or whether it has rendered itself institutionally incapable of thinking in terms other than the short and the shallow, it’s a fair bet that the best, most accurate prediction about the political fortunes of this president is the one you’re reading here: The media will continue to attach significance to things that he doesn’t care about, and it will continue to rush to judgment before the evidence is in. And if you don’t believe that, says the administration official, just wait until the midterms. “That’ll be the next time he’s underestimated and beaten up in the news cycle and then comes out smelling a hell of a lot better than they think.”

Jeff Bercovici writes for AOL’s Daily Finance blog. Spinning the News Cycle