The power of the (local) press

February 27, 2013 01:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director

President Obama has been sitting down with local TV reporters a lot lately as he presses his case for Congress to avoid the deep spending cuts, known as sequester, that are set to take effect March first.

The President—or at least his media team—believes in this strategy.  You see, there are those in DC who are open about their beliefs that local journalists, TV or otherwise, go easier on the President than the national press corps.   As a result, they say, Mr. Obama is much more able to make his points unencumbered without being sidetracked by those pesky deeper questions that a regular White House reporter might ask. 

Local TV stations get a lot in the bargain.  Their reporters get to go to the White House, they get to do stand-ups on the North Lawn… heck, they might even get a quick glance at the Blue Room before being shuttled off to their five minutes of fame!

Mr. Obama has made very successful use of local media in recent months, whether during his re-election campaign or on the meatier political issues, like the national debt and taxes, that have tied Washington in knots for the past four years. But appearing on the local news in key markets is only part of the strategy.  There are also the carefully orchestrated news events such as the President appearing regularly on national TV flanked by firefighters, police officers and small children.  With those “regular Americans” standing behind him, he proceeds to lobby the public to pay higher taxes, adopt stricter gun control law or increase stimulus spending.  The end result is widespread coverage that paints the President as Leader-In-Chief and congressional Republicans as the obstructionists. And that’s exactly where he wants to be.

I have no problem with the President’s use of local reporters as a conduit for his making his case to the American people.   But I do urge those who participate do so with the kind of skeptical eye that any good reporter would have toward any other source.   No doubt, it’s challenging for some to get past the trappings of the Presidency and the urge to shout to their audiences back home, “President Obama talks EXCLUSIVELY to Eyewitness News tonight.”

Nevertheless, every reporter—no matter where he or she comes from—needs to be willing to ask the tough questions their viewers expect them to ask.  It’s an obligation of all of us who are journalists—no matter who is sitting across from us.

From what I’ve seen of these interviews around the country, the record on that score appears to be mixed.  There are reporters who do their homework on local issues and local concerns and press the President for answers.  And there are reporters who may as well just be working off a list of questions prepared by the White House Communications Office. 

No doubt we’ll see more of this strategy from the West Wing in the months to come.  Our job is to make sure the President doesn’t become too comfortable with it.  Because that would mean we’re not doing our jobs as well as we should.