President Obama’s conference on bullying Thursday was deeply ironic to some in the White House press corps. That’s because every reporter who regularly covers the place knows that President Obama’s staff has a policy – an actual, pre-conceived policy – of bullying.
It’s a tactic that amount to no less than suppression of speech. By the “openness” administration.
The White House bullies reporters to try to ensure favorable coverage. When White House officials, particularly members of the press office, see a story they don’t like, they often call and verbally abuse the reporter who wrote the piece.
In diatribes often peppered with obscenities, they complain of profound injustice, bias, lack of relevance – anything they can think of to get reporters to back off their story.
It’s not just a series of uncontrolled outbursts. It is a planned, methodical, and highly artificial effort to either squash a story or get inside a reporter’s head so they think twice about doing a piece next time that negatively impacts Obama.
That this is an actual policy is evident from the consistency of the practice and its implementation by nearly every member of the White House press office staff. They are all nice, affable people who suddenly switch into an unmarked gear and begin running you over at full speed.
I have been told by one Obama flack that a story was “horseshit” and by another that “you’re really going to win a fucking Nobel Prize for that one.” A third, while he was working on the campaign in 2008, told me he “almost fell out of my chair” when he heard I was working on a certain piece and proceeded with a profanity-laced analysis of its weaknesses.
A fourth, who I’d thought was the good cop among the bunch, had a sudden change of personality in his office one day when he tore into a rather routine article of mine that barely grazed the president.
And I’d never even heard from former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Even President Obama has acknowledged Gibbs could give reporters a hard time.
All this while I was a member of the mainstream press with Roll Call, before I launched this blog.
The problem with this kind of intimidation is not that it hurt reporters’ feelings. The problem is that it is an assault on free speech. The Obamaites know perfectly well that most of these are legitimate, fair stories. But because the articles don’t make the president look great, the press office employs a tactic to try to keep reporters from writing the things they must.
I have seen this done by press people from the Bush and Clinton administrations, which I both covered. But only on rare occasion, and generally with a legitimate grievance in hand. But never have I witnessed this type of bullying of the press in such a systematic, intense, and frequent manner.
Most White House reporters won’t talk or write about it, obviously fearing that sources and interview opportunities will suddenly dry up. One brave soul who got into it a bit was Josh Gerstein of POLITICO, who last year wrote a piece on the surprisingly bad relationship between the Obama press office and reporters.
There is some hope that newly minted White House Press Secretary Jay Carney will improve relations with the press. But while I never had to deal with any tirades out of him while he was Vice President Biden’s communications director, the rap on Carney is that he, a former reporter for Time, has in the past made every effort to ensure his Obamaland colleagues understand he’s with the program.
A recent piece by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank questioned the pervasive humming around town that the Carney era will be marked by a new Detente with the press, noting he had once received an email from Carney titled “You are a hack.”
Mr. President, if you are serious about reducing bullying, you might first want to try to put in stop to it in your own house.