In some cases, it appears that President Obama may be following the news too closely. In Obama’s press conference releasing his birth certificate to the media, he complained that the news media were paying too much attention to the “birther” issue and not enough to national security, noting that he “was just back there listening to Chuck [Todd]–he was saying, it’s amazing that he’s not going to be talking about national security. I would not have the networks breaking in if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it.” Obama’s comment that he was “back there listening to Chuck” was a revealing admission of how aware Obama is of what is being said about him on TV news, who is saying it, and how it sometimes aggravates him.
Some of the Obama team’s frustration with its TV portrayals has led to a divide-and-conquer approach that has attempted to single out Fox News for administration criticism–subtly communicating to other networks that criticism will receive a retaliatory response. Obama even had a communications staffer, Anita Dunn, lead a campaign against Fox News and its coverage. But even beyond Fox News, Obama and his team have been far more combative with, and sensitive to, TV news once in office. President Obama has even been shown to lose his trademark cool about his treatment on the TV news. After recording an interview with Belo TV’s Brad Watson, Obama told Watson, “Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?”
These tough tactics have been noticed by the White House press corps. The Washington Post’s Farhi wrote a story talking about how the White House’s sharp elbows have strained relations with a number of reporters. Farhi noted that CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson was “cussed” at by White House aide Eric Schultz for her reporting on the Fast and Furious scandal, which many other mainstream reporters avoided. Farhi also noted that another half dozen reporters “described censorious e-mails or phone calls from Carney or his staff members that they characterized as heavy-handed.” All of these reporters refused to speak on the record, figuring, probably correctly, that it could damage their already prickly relations with White House communicators.
As these incidents show, the Obama White House is both very aware and very thin-skinned about what reporters, and particularly TV reporters, say about them. They also show how awareness can easily tip into hypersensitivity regarding presidential portrayals on television. These difficulties can challenge Obama’s ability to shape his message going forward. They can also provide Republicans with an opportunity to shape the debate in the upcoming presidential election.