"Why don't you leave him alone?" supporters of President Obama tweet me. "Give the man a break and stop being disrespectful."
"You're all just a bunch of suck-up lefties," opponents of President Obama tweet at me, referring, I presume, to the White House press corps. "Why don't you try asking a real question for a change?"
You can't please everyone. And someone is always going to be mad at the White House press corps. But it's all in eye of the beholder. And, as I'll explain, there have been times when both sides have been right.
Conservatives often like to say that White House reporters (who often work for big, conservative companies like News Corp., Time Warner, and Disney) are liberals who just pass along whatever they are spoon-fed by Team Obama. In this view, it's all a big love fest between journalists and the president down the hall.
They ask why the "liberal media" ignored the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Somehow these critics missed the 800-plus articles that The Washington Post and New York Times alone have run on the story.
Also: If White House reporters are lapdogs, why does President Obama hold so few news conferences? If we are lapdogs, why doesn't Obama talk more to newspapers and TV networks accused of being "friendlies," like the Times or the Post or MSNBC? And if reporters are so eager to passively be spoon-fed everything Obama says, why does he feel it necessary to build his own massive network to get his point of view out?
If anything, Obama is press averse to an historic degree. "The way the president's availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace," ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton recently told Politico. Ann should know. She's been at the White House since Gerald Ford was president. "This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away," she adds.
Today's White House press corps is hardly a lapdog. But in the past, Beltway reporters have been cowed by presidents.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by polio, served 12 years as president, yet the FDR library in Hyde Park, N.Y., only has three photos of him in a wheelchair. "There was a gentlemen's understanding with the press," says the library's website, that photographs displaying FDR's disability were not published." Think that would happen today?
Similarly, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal showed, reporters today simply won't turn a blind eye to a philandering president. In the 1960s, the press corps did exactly that with John F. Kennedy. It's believed that while in office he slept with a woman who also slept with two Mafia bosses; it's also believed that another mistress was an East German spy. Think a White House reporter would ignore a bombshell like that today?
Of course, it's also true that journalists were obedient little lapdogs on matters far more serious than even Benghazi. After that other Sept. 11 attack (you know, back in 2001), the White House leaned on the press corps big time. Attorney General John Ashcroft said questioning the Bush administration "only aids terrorists" and "gives ammunition to America's enemies," while press secretary Ari Fleischer warned that "all Americans... need to watch what they say, watch what they do."
In the run-up to the Iraq War from September 2002 to February 2003, 414 Iraq stories aired on the evening broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC News, according to media analyst Andrew Tyndall. More than nine in 10 of them relied on Bush administration sourcing. Reporters did just 34 stories (8 percent) that required independent questioning of non-administration sources. And talk about not wanting to offend the White House: MSNBC fired its top-rated host, the super-liberal Phil Donahue, because, as an internal memo said, Donahue's anti-administration views presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war."
It gets worse still. In a news conference two weeks before the Iraq invasion, President Bush mentioned al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 multiple times. No one challenged the connection Bush appeared to be making between al Qaeda and Iraq — even though intelligence sources by then were publicly questioning the connection.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lapdog press.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- How Hillary Clinton's 'smart power' turned Libya into a dumpster fire
- A trick for better lunch sandwiches
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
Subscribe to the Week