Access Is Not Journalism
Dana Milbank had a full-blown temper tantrum in his column today over media access at the recently concluded global nuclear security conference, shrieking, “Obama’s Disregard for Media Reaches New Heights at Nuclear Summit.”
World leaders arriving in Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit must have felt for a moment that they had instead been transported to Soviet-era Moscow.
They entered a capital that had become a military encampment, with camo-wearing military police in Humvees and enough Army vehicles to make it look like a May Day parade on New York Avenue[.] …
In the middle of it all was Obama — occupant of an office once informally known as “leader of the free world” — putting on a clinic for some of the world’s greatest dictators in how to circumvent a free press.
If White House pool reporters are the “free press,” Glenn Beck is an investigative journalist. At any rate, Milbank can’t possibly be upset that the public is being kept in the dark about the purpose, or the substance, or the outcome of the summit. He doesn’t spend a moment’s time on that. His snit is entirely about the press not being allowed into the private, one-on-one meetings Obama held with selected world leaders. Why? He really doesn’t offer any coherent reason (emphasis is mine):
Reporters for foreign outlets, admitted for the first time to the White House press pool, got the impression that the vaunted American freedoms are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Yasmeen Alamiri from the Saudi Press Agency got this lesson in press freedom when trying to cover Obama’s opening remarks as part of that limited pool: “The foreign reporters/cameramen were escorted out in under two minutes, just as the leaders were about to begin, and Obama was going to make remarks. . . . Sorry, it is what it is.”
Alamiri’s counterparts from around the world wrote of similar experiences in their pool reports. Arabic-language MBC TV’s Nadia Bilbassy had this to say of Obama’s meeting with the Jordanian king: “We were there for around 30 seconds, not enough even to notice the color of tie of both presidents. I think blue for the king.”
The Press Trust of India, at Obama’s meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, reported, “In less than a minute, the pool was asked to leave.” The Yomiuri Shimbun correspondent found that she was “ushered out about 30 seconds” after arriving for Obama’s meeting with the Malaysian prime minister. A reporter with Turkey’s TRT-Turk went to Obama’s meeting with the president of Armenia, but “we had to leave the room again after less than 40 seconds.”
The “vaunted American freedoms” equal being allowed to take down the President’s opening remarks at a conference? The reporters were asked to leave the room before they could “notice the color of tie of both presidents”?
This is not about press freedom; it’s about press freebies. Access. The right to stand in the room because you are on the A-list.
The last couple of paragraphs are the most revealing:
In “bilateral” meetings with foreign leaders, presidents usually take questions, or at least trade statements. But at most of Obama’s, there were only written “readouts.” Canada: “The president and the prime minister noted the enduring strength of our bilateral partnership.” India: “The two leaders vowed to continue to strengthen the robust relationship between the people of their countries.” Pakistan: “President Obama began by noting that he is very fond of Pakistan.”
Finally, away from other leaders, Obama took reporters’ questions for 20 minutes. They were tough and skeptical questions that punctured the banal readouts: pointing out that the nonproliferation agreements weren’t binding, noting China’s equivocation on sanctions against Iran, and pressing Obama on the failure to curb North Korea’s weapons. The Post’s Scott Wilson asked Obama if he would call on Israel, which skipped the summit, to declare its nuclear weapons.
“I’m not going to comment on their program,” Obama said.
Not surprising. But it’s still important that the questions are asked.
Think about that last line for a moment. Let its implications sink in. What is Milbank really saying here? To me, it sounds like what he most cares about is asking a question, even though he expects not to get an answer — or an illuminating or informative answer. It’s certainly pretty unarguable that reporters often — even usually — do not get frank or revealing answers to questions at White House pressers, or any press conferences for that matter. Obviously, you still have to ask the question — but for an actual journalist, the question is just the beginning, even when it’s not answered. Even more so if it’s not answered. What Milbank seems to be telling us, though, is that he entirely expects not to get an answer. But that’s okay, because what really matters is asking the question. He doesn’t say, “Not surprising. But it’s still important that the questions are asked, and asked again, and again, and again, until they are answered.” His job is done once the question is asked, no matter what the answer is, or whether there even is an answer.
In doing this, Milbank completely misses the significance of those one-on-one meetings. Ironically, a broad clue to that significance is contained in the very article by Scott Wilson that Milbank references in the above clip (emphasis is mine):
Obama used the summit and its sidelines to elevate the arcane issue of nuclear materials security, once the province of scientists and think tanks, to a higher rank on the international security agenda.
But his achieving consensus on the goal of locking down all loose nuclear materials in four years was mitigated by the fact that participation is voluntary. Progress, or lack thereof, will be measured in two years, when leaders gather in South Korea for the second Nuclear Security Summit.
In his role as host, though, Obama gave his fellow heads of state a taste of what has been familiar to many Americans who followed the domestic political debate over the past year: the president as seminar leader.
For four hours Tuesday, Obama led a pair of planning sessions to iron out the final details of the communique that was the culmination of the summit.
He sat at the center of the gathering, calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose and offer alternatives to the plan taking shape. Only the heads of state and, at times, two senior aides were allowed in the room, an exclusivity some diplomats called rare.
“He’s never better than when he’s the teacher,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “Many of those who attended were just happy to be in the picture with Obama. I mean, he did get 46 leaders to Washington on a boring issue. That’s pretty good.”
Read between the lines: Obama knew that achieving consensus (in getting 46 nations to agree to the goal of securing all loose nuclear materials in four years) would be difficult because participation was voluntary. So that means he had to persuade those 46 global leaders, by non-coercive means, that the goal was achievable, vital to their self-interests, something they wanted to do, and something on which they would be willing to work collaboratively and cooperatively with the United States. And that means… DIPLOMACY! And that helps us to understand why Obama treated these 46 heads of nations with such exquisite respect and personal attention. Whether you agree or disagree with the strategy, it still IS a strategy. It’s still plain as rain that Obama did not meet privately with those leaders because he hates the media and wanted to take that opportunity to deliberately snub them. Oh, I’m sure he realized how pissed off the press pool reporters would be, and maybe he probably did take some perverse pleasure in that, but does that mean the overriding meaning and lesson of this event was that Pres. Obama was absolutely disgusting to the media and treated the press with heights of disregard never before seen in Washington, D.C.? I do not think so.
Exit thought: It is NOT all about you and your press pool buds, Milbank. Get.over.yourself.
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