The president of the United States is often characterized as the most powerful person in the world. In spite of the enormous power held by the leader of the free world, however, there remains one thing the president can’t do — control the news agenda.
The constitutional framers created a free press to make sure the government powers-that-be couldn’t orchestrate the flow of information to the citizenry. Thus, if Fox News wants to do saturation coverage of Benghazi or IRS targeting, it is free to do so. If The New York Times wants to beat up Chris Christie over Bridgegate, it surely can. And if ABC’s “Good Morning America” wants to waste its news agenda with updates about “The Bachelor,” it can do that, too. The media’s news agenda might be politically charged, misguided, too soft or even irrelevant, but it’s still the press’ prerogative to decide.
President Obama surely knows this, but he is apparently uncomfortable with the arrangement. The president chafed during his recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly when O’Reilly asked about political overtones in the administration’s initial Benghazi explanations, “They believe it because folks like you are telling them that.” After questions about IRS targeting, President Obama scolded O’Reilly, “These kinds of things keep on surfacing in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”
A president is not a helpless victim of the media when it comes to what issues get on the news agenda. A president has plenty of tools to get his messages out, push priorities and shape public discourse. A president can give an oration whenever he wants on whatever topic. The White House press office feeds reporters every day and chastises reporters who don’t get in line. Every White House has Cabinet members and operatives to shill the president’s talking points.
President Obama’s media operation has worked these levers like no other administration. That’s what makes the president’s aggravation over Fox News so puzzling.
When it’s time for publication or broadcast, the press must set the agenda as it sees fit, presumably serving as a surrogate for the public, not the government. Otherwise, you have state-controlled media with the press serving as stenographers, the hallmark of oppressive regimes.
While the president is correct that FNC has displayed more interest in Benghazi and the IRS, other news outlets haven’t totally ignored the topics. For example, in January the Benghazi matter was discussed in CNN programs hosted by Candy Crowley, Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer. Those CNN hosts are hardly driven by conservative zeal.
Obama is not the first president to be annoyed with the media’s agenda. Presidential battles with the press go back to the days of Adams and Jefferson. Presidents such as Harry Truman got much rougher rides from the media than President Obama has had. George W. Bush once famously said while defending Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “I am the decider.” But even as president, Bush couldn’t decide how the media would frame a news agenda that often challenged him.
Time will tell if, as Obama has asserted, Benghazi and IRS targeting are “phony scandals.” If there is nothing to these stories, all of FNC’s harping will only serve to damage the organization’s credibility. In the meantime, the White House might consider the results of a new Quinnipiac poll that showed 52 percent of Americans believe the Obama administration “deliberately misled the American people” about the Benghazi attack. That total is up 11 points in a year.
Another Quinnipiac poll last summer showed 76 percent of Americans want a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS targeting. The respondents in those polls don’t all watch Fox News. If the president thinks this magnitude of public opinion is the result of Fox News coverage, he wildly overestimates the influence of FNC.
Richard Nixon’s press secretary initially dismissed Watergate as a “third-rate burglary,” but the press incubated the story and determined it was more than that. This is not to say that Benghazi or the IRS is like Watergate, but it must be recognized that the process of the press takes time. And that process has served America quite well for more than 200 years. Scandals, even phony scandals, get off the news agenda only after all of the information gets out.
Jeffrey McCall is a Professor of Communications and Theater at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. This post was originally published in the Indianapolis Star. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Email McCall at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Prof_McCall.