Working the Refs: Access to Obama and Palin.

One of the big stories in the last two days was the unavailability of Sarah Palin for interviews (Palin has been out campaigning and giving speeches, but has put off interviews for now).

I think Barack Obama had the best term for public complaints about the opponent's behavior: Working the refs.

If I were Obama, I would try to work the refs too. After all, Palin is indeed dodging the press.

But observers should not get too worked up about this issue, given the Obama campaign's long history of struggles with the press over access to Obama, intermittent refusals to hold regular press conferences with the reporters following him (favoring instead short interviews with local and national press less up on the issues), and the habit of punishing any reporters who probe too deeply, especially about his carefully crafted personal history.

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE: From February through July.


"We're not on the plane, in my view, to have private talks with presidential candidates," Zeleny added. "We're here to report what they are saying and give our readers a better idea of their campaigns and their candidacies."

"There has never been a press corps in the history of our nation that got as many interviews as they wanted," Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign's traveling press secretary, responded in an e-mail.

. . . Whereas a candidate like Sen. John McCain of Arizona relishes lengthy on-the-record bull sessions with the media, Obama generally does not. So it's no surprise that reporters will rush to get a quote when he does so.

Of course, journalists griping about not getting enough access is nothing new — but as Obama and Clinton fraternize a bit more with the traveling media, and the rules aren't clear, it presents a problem.

UPI, 2/26:

Reporters are finding it tougher to gain access to Barack Obama as the Illinois senator's campaign closes in on the Democratic U.S. presidential nomination.

Complaints from the press plane include blackouts on Obama's satellite television interviews and requirements for escorts at large campaign rallies, the Web site The Politico said Tuesday.

The Politico said Hillary Clinton and John McCain remain more open to the press pack and also noted the growing lack of access comes at a time when Obama is seeing increased criticism over a perceived lack of specifics on his platform.

Wall Street Journal, 3/3:

This year, Hillary Clinton made a clumsy attack on Mr. Rezko as a "slum landlord" during one debate. But her campaign has otherwise steered clear — at least until last Friday, when Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton aide, suggested to reporters on a conference call that "the number of questions that we don't know the answers to about the relationship between Mr. Rezko and Mr. Obama is staggering." Mr. Obama's campaign told me they have answered all questions about Mr. Rezko and have no plans to release any further records. . . .

Mr. Obama will eventually have to talk about Illinois, if only to clear the air. After John McCain last month was attacked for cozy ties to lobbyists, he held a news conference and answered every question. Hillary Clinton held a White House news conference on Whitewater and her cattle futures. Mr. Obama must do the same for questions about Mr. Rezko and "the Chicago way" of politics. If he doesn't, they may increasingly haunt his candidacy.

Telegraph, 4/22:

Accusations of a passionate love affair between Barack Obama and the press have been a feature of the 2008 campaign. Well, if that's the case there's maybe a need for a bit of counselling at the moment if the relationship is to be stopped from heading towards splitsville. On Obama One, there's a sense of growing mutiny. There's been no press availability for 11 days and only two in April. And today there was "Wafflegate" yep, the incident achieved gatedom status within hours.

Is Barack Obama too busy eating waffles to talk to the press?

In an exchange in a Scranton diner that may well lead to Obama being dogged by hapless young Republican volunteers dressed in foam waffle costumes come the general election, Aswini Anburajan of NBC asked the presidential hopeful what he thought of Jimmy Carter meeting Hamas. Visibly annoyed, Obama responded: "Why can't I just eat my waffle? I'm just eating my waffle here." Realising he was being videoed, he then winked at Anburajan and tried to make a joke of the moment. But it was too late.

A few hours later, Obama was unrepentant, again rebuffing a reporter's question. . . .

When we asked him (David Axelrod) why Obama wasn't talking to us, he responded: "I'm sure that he'll be spending time with you some time soon. He's done a series of interviews today on national television, on local television with local press so he's done a lot of media."

But Obama's unwillingness to hold a press conference is clearly part of a strategy of message control. Short television, radio or local newspaper interviews are very unlikely to put him at the mercy of the kind of persistent line of questioning he was subjected to during last Wednesday's Philadelphia debate which clearly annoyed him.

In the short term, it might be a clever tactic he hasn't been tripped up in the closing days of the Pennsylvania primary campaign. But in the longer term it could be a problem against John McCain, who grants almost unfettered media access.

Reporters get antsy when they're not talked to particularly if their organisations are stumping up thousands of dollars a day to travel with the candidate. Normally, Obama wouldn't get questions thrown at him in diners, on the tarmac or when he's micing up for a tv show.

But if he's not doing press conferences or avails on the plane then we have no other option but to buttonhole him whenever we can. . . .

When he does engage with the press, Obama can be charm itself and is more than up to the task of handling a bit of back and forth. But as the waffle video shows, avoiding questions feeds the notion of a certain type of arrogance and a feeling that the candidate thinks he doesn't have to hold himself up to proper scrutiny.

Politico, 6/19:

News organizations complain about access to Obama

The Times mentioned today a letter from Washington bureau chiefs of six leading news organizations to the Obama campaign, complaining about access and about being deceived by campaign aides.

I've obtained a copy of the letter, whose signatories include AP's Ron Fournier and the late Tim Russert of NBC. It was sent June 6, after Obama flew his press corps to Chicago and stayed behind to meet Clinton. The news organizations threaten in the letter to withhold payment for the flight.

More broadly, the organizations complain that Obama offers less access to the press even than President Bush, keeping even a single pool reporter out of his security bubble. He also answers relatively few questions, and his agreement to admit reporters to fundraisers remains partial: Last night, the pool reporter, the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, reported that she was confined to a Kennedy poolhouse while Obama talked to donors.

Guardian, 6/19:

The US media is airing frustration over its access to Barack Obama's campaign, complaining that the Democratic nominee sets a lower standard for press relations than George Bush.

The Obama camp is known for its disciplined message and well-oiled operation. Such control appears to be creating tension with major US television networks and newspapers, which pay high prices to travel with the candidate and expect access to Obama in return.

Reporters have been shut out of two Obama events in the past week, according to the New York Times.

Newsbusters, 7/21:

Andrea Mitchell might be a doyenne of the liberal media, but she has her reporter's pride and principles, which have been trampled by the way the Obama campaign has managed the media during the candidate's current trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. Mitchell let loose on this evening's Hardball, speaking of "fake interviews," and decrying that she was unable to report on pertinent aspects of the trip because the media has been excluded and that the video released is unreliable because it's impossible to know what has been edited out. …

MITCHELL: Let me just say something about the message management. He didn't have reporters with him, he didn't have a press pool, he didn't do a press conference while he was on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq. What you're seeing is not reporters brought in. You're seeing selected pictures taken by the military, questions by the military, and what some would call fake interviews, because they're not interviews from a journalist. So, there's a real press issue here. Politically it's smart as can be. But we've not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.

The New Republic, 7/24:

Reporters who cover Obama these days grouse that Obama's flacks shroud the campaign in secrecy and provide little to no access. "They're more disciplined than the Bush people," a reporter on the Obama trail gripes. "There was this idea of being transparent, but they're not. They're total tightwads with information."

In June, there was something of a revolt after Obama ditched the press corps on his campaign plane for a secret meeting with Clinton at Senator Dianne Feinstein's house in Washington, leaving the reporters trapped on the flight to Chicago. . . .

Meanwhile, there have been widespread complaints over the shortage of spots to accompany Obama on his tour of the Middle East and Europe. A few days before the tour departed, Time magazine was told it couldn't send a photographer along, and, on July 22, NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell complained on-air that the only images the press had received of Obama meeting with the troops was released by the U.S. military. (To be fair, congressional delegations to Iraq are kept secret for security purposes). And there's been widespread grumbling that the campaign revoked New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza's spot on the trip as retribution for the magazine's recent satirical cover. These may or may not be legitimate complaints--the evidence is mixed--but the press is hardly inclined to give the campaign the benefit of the doubt.

Obama's press liaison, Robert Gibbs, has built a particularly large reservoir of ill will. David Mendell, who covered Obama's Senate campaign for the Chicago Tribune and authored the 2007 Obama book From Promise to Power, wrote about Gibbs as "the anti-Obama" and described him as "Obama's hired gun, skillfully trained to shoot at reporters whose coverage was deemed unfair. Mendell tells me, "if [Gibbs] feels you're necessary to achieve a campaign goal, he will give you access and allow you in. But, if he feels you're not going to be of help, he can just ignore you." Mendell has his own specific gripe: Apparently, the Obama team was less than pleased with his biography, on which they cooperated, and Gibbs has since refused to help with the second edition.

Much of this is certainly the run-of-the-mill complaining of campaign reporters who can't get enough access. Still, the campaign hasn't helped itself, approaching reporters with a sense of entitlement. "They're an arrogant operation. Young and arrogant," one reporter covering the campaign says. "They don't believe in transparency with their own campaign," another says.

Reporters who have covered Obama's biography or his problems with certain voter blocs have been challenged the most aggressively. "They're terrified of people poking around Obama's life," one reporter says. "The whole Obama narrative is built around this narrative that Obama and David Axelrod built, and, like all stories, it's not entirely true. So they have to be protective of the crown jewels." Another reporter notes that, during the last year, Obama's old friends and Harvard classmates were requested not to talk to the press without permission.

As tensions escalate, the risk to Obama, of course, is that reporters will be emboldened to challenge his campaign ever more aggressively

Media Matters, 7/29:

But back to Obama. Any discussion about his press relations and whether his campaign has walled out reporters takes place against the backdrop of the Beltway conventional wisdom that McCain enjoys an easygoing kinship with reporters because his free-wheeling, media-loving campaign boasts an "almost obsessive level of press access," as Ana Marie Cox stressed in a recent issue of Radar. (It's access that, as Media Matters for America's Jamison Foser pointed out, serves no real purpose unless reporters put it to use by asking McCain probing questions.)

"Covering McCain is a blast," wrote Cox. "He genuinely likes reporters: He'll joke with us about our drinking habits, playfully request our cell phones in the middle of a call and tell some unsuspecting editor or parent that the phone's owner has just been hauled off to rehab, and engage in gleefully sarcastic banter about both our colleagues and his."

UPDATE: If I were working on the McCain campaign, I would turn the access question back on Obama — in essence, working the refs.

In a few days, I would announce that Sarah Palin will hold her first open press conference devoted to questions about her background on the day after Barack Obama holds his first open press conference devoted to questions about his background — his Chicago days, his attempts to reform education, his obtaining grants for developers, his ties to questionable friends, and his earmarking practices in both the Illinois and US Senates. This would have to be an announced press conference where Obama would stay long enough to answer essentially all questions from the traveling press, as well as from investigative reporters from the National Review and the Weekly Standard. The next day Palin would hold her press conference and do essentially the same thing, answering questions about her background.

Even if the McCain campaign does not take this exact approach, if Palin ever does hold a public press conference on her background, she should challenge Obama to do the same. If she has to answer questions from the dozens of news organizations now probing her past, Barack Obama should have to answer questions from the very few news organizations who have bothered to look into his in any depth.

2d UPDATE: The more I think about it, I wouldn't trust the existing press corps to do its job even if given the opportunity -- it hasn't so far.

The better offer, which can be made today and fits the anti-press narrative even better, is this: Sarah Palin will sit down for a long interview about her background with an investigative reporter from the NY Times or Washington Post the day after Barack Obama sits down for a long interview about his background with Stanley Kurtz of the National Review.