The media love-in with Barack Obama

Neil Macdonald on Barack Obama's long honeymoon with the Washington media.

Barack Obama killed at the White House correspondents' dinner a couple of weeks back.

It was a pretty funny speech, though not in the least self-deprecating, which is traditionally what these occasions are supposed to be about.

George W. Bush understood that. He gamely mocked himself, year after year.

Not Obama, though. He took shots at everyone except himself and, at one point, warning celebrity suitors to stay away from his two daughters, said: "Boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You'll never see it coming."

Life is sweet. Barack Obama enjoys himself at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on May 1, 2010. (Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The line drew a big laugh and the cable news shows (with the exception of the perpetually unimpressed Fox News) fawned all over the president's performance the next morning.

Here's a thought, though: What if George W. Bush had delivered the Predator line?

My guess is there would have been a righteous blast (except, perhaps, from Fox News) about insensitivity, warmongering and general buffoonish arrogance.

American Predator drones, after all, regularly unleash missiles into Pakistani and Afghan villages. While they are aimed at Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, they often blow innocent bystanders to smithereens, too.

And, yuk yuk, nobody ever sees them coming. Barack Obama gets away with joking about that?

A thrill up his leg

There's no denying it: Reporters cut Obama slack all the time.

Most probably admire him. They certainly apply an entirely different standard to his presidency than they did to his predecessor, whom they — we — clearly considered somewhat gormless.  

From NBC's Chris Matthews, who declared on air that an Obama speech sent "a thrill up his leg," to the comparatively non-adversarial tone at White House press briefings, the media's respectful affection for Obama stands in glaring contrast to the treatment Bush endured for most of his presidency.

And that double standard does our collective credibility no good, to say the least.

I haven't seen anything like it since the toadying to Pierre Trudeau by many of my colleagues on Parliament Hill decades ago.

Trudeau regarded us with utter contempt, for which many in the press gallery rewarded him with slavish admiration. It drove his political adversaries nuts.

One man's war crime

In Obama's case, the media's indulgence has to be particularly galling for Republicans because he has perpetuated and, in some cases, built upon a host of Bush policies.

The Predator strikes — stealth assassinations — are a good example. Some people in Obama's constituency regarded them as a war crime when Bush was in charge.

Obama has actually intensified the strikes, but they are now reported neutrally, when they're reported at all.

Obama has also dramatically stepped up the war in Afghanistan, struck a secret price-fixing deal with big pharmaceutical companies, is in the process of backtracking on his election promise not to increase taxes on most Americans, has reneged on his vow to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and has sent federal lawyers to court to uphold the Defence of Marriage Act, which he professed to loathe when he was courting the gay vote.

What's more, his administration is every bit as secretive as Bush's was. Plus, he plays more golf than Bush did and does more partisan fundraising, much of it behind closed doors.

All of this has been reported, but with none of the bile that infused stories about Bush's reversals, missteps or, um, lack of truthiness.

Stepping in it

Here's another example of what I am talking about.

Imagine if, a month or so ago, while promoting new offshore drilling, Bush had said this: "It turns out the oil rigs today generally don't cause oil spills. They are technologically very advanced."

And then imagine that he remained relatively silent in the days after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up a few weeks later, befouling the Gulf of Mexico. And then didn't visit the area until nine days after that.

Barack Obama said and did exactly those things, but it took the liberal comedian Bill Maher to force the media's nose into it.

"Why isn't Barack Obama getting more shit for this?" asked Maher recently on his TV show. "I think he should."

The big lie

Larry Sabato, the respected director of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics, chuckled when I asked him about Obama's media fan club: "The thrill," he said, "is still rolling up the leg."

But to be fair, Sabato added, there are other factors, including that "he's the first African-American president. I think that gives him a lot of protection. People want him to succeed for that reason."

Sabato also points out that in the first years of the Bush presidency, the national media were "extraordinarily deferential," cowed as they were by the powerfully jingoistic public attittude after the 9/11 attacks.

It was only when the public began to perceive Bush as having lied about the reasons for invading Iraq, says Sabato, that the media really turned on him.

"There may be a defining event in the Obama administration that will produce the same reaction," he says. "One possibility is the debt."


Sabato believes Obama misled the public about the real cost of his health-care reforms, which he says will inevitably add to the national debt. If that happens, he says, reporters who uncritically reported the president's promises may go on the attack.

But, broadly, he believes Obama benefits from what he sees as the liberal outlook of most elite-level reporters: "They fit Obama like a glove, and he fits them like a glove."

That sort of assessment is what has turned the mainstream media — the MSM — into a pejorative term for many conservatives. For them, the MSM is simply a collection of leftist, anti-business, anti-religion, pro-abortion, terrorist-sympathizing haters of guns and liberty.

Well, I've been MSM for 34 years and I'm not so sure we're a bunch of Marxists. We are in fact pretty bourgeois.

The better ones among us are well paid and therefore tend to be fiscally conservative. But I would have to acknowledge that most of my colleagues are probably pro-choice (even those who would never have an abortion themselves), pro-civil liberties and pro-gay rights.

I would hope that attitude arises from a libertarian streak that ought to be baked into any journalist's thinking. We are trained as professional skeptics and aren't generally too keen on anyone who wants to dictate or, worse, legislate morality.

But we are also supposed to question authority. We are definitely supposed to do that. At the moment, Barack Obama personifies authority. And this is getting embarrassing.