Since taking office, President Obama has spoken about the media with such regularity it seems he's added "critic in chief" to his portfolio of presidential duties. With the media so much on his mind, do his recurring references reveal a thin skin, or an I-know-better attitude? His best-known comment on the topic would seem to be the former: "I've got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration," he said in June, referring to Fox News. Yet in the main, he assumes a detached, almost professorial stance to describe the current news climate.
He's touched on the topic so many times that the A.P. recently put together a list. In the eulogy he delivered at the memorial service for Walter Cronkite in September, he praised the late anchor's "standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility, noting: "It's a standard that's a little bit harder to find today. We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line."
Building on this point, he laments the rise of "instant commentary and celebrity gossip and softer stories" as well as their implications. "The public debate cheapens," he said. "The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should -- and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?"
Though appropriately high-minded for a formal occasion, a few weeks later in his five-program blitzkrieg of Sunday public-affair programs he used the media to talk (among other things) about the media and what he sees as some of their problems.
On ABC's "This Week," he told George Stephanopoulos: "Sometimes I think that, frankly, the media encourages some of the outliers in behavior, because, let's face it, the easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude. If you're just being sensible and giving people the benefit of the doubt and you're making your arguments, you don't get time on the nightly news."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," after telling David Gregory that the subject of race is "catnip to the media," he expanded his argument: "Unfortunately, we've got a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy. What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude. And that's something that I think has to change. And it starts with me. And I've tried to make sure that I've sent a clear signal. And I've tried to maintain an approach that says, look, we can have some serious disagreements but, at the end of the day, I'm assuming that you want the best for America just like I do."
On CBS's "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer was on the receiving end of a similar disquisition: "I do think part of what's different today is that the 24-hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can't get enough of conflict, it's catnip to the media right now. And so the easiest way to get 15 minutes of fame is to be rude to somebody. In that environment I think it makes it more difficult for us to solve the problems that the American people sent us here to solve."
In each instance, Obama is more descriptive than combative -- the way it is in the message world of today. It's somewhat self-serving, but instructional at the same time.
That's what makes the more-heat-than-light battle with Fox so curious. Indeed, Obama tried to downplay the contretemps in a recent interview with NBC. Pressed for his opinion on the conflict, he stated, "What our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes, and if media is operating basically as a talk-radio format, then that's one thing, and if it's operating as a news outlet, then that's another. But it's not something I'm losing a lot of sleep over."
But a larger series of questions remain unanswered. Was it pique or policy? Is the White House assuming the role of the tough cop as opposed to Obama's above-the-fray position? Will the administration's approach extend to other less-than-friendly outlets? Down the road might the president engage in verbal fisticuffs of his own -- and with what effect?
The self-appointed critic-in-chief could find that this is a war his presidency doesn't need to fight -- and really can't win. With the media in a constant battle for audience, a contest with the White House or the president brings a news outlet into the spotlight of attention in a can't-lose manner. Talk about catnip.
Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.