Obama Laments Current Politics; Says Media Must Do Better
WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama called on journalists Monday to uphold higher standards in keeping voters informed about their elected leaders, saying at a press dinner in Washington that business demands had compromised news outlets’ ability to hold candidates to their promises.
Obama — whose own administration has stood accused of hampering journalists’ work through secrecy — said that tough questions and investigative reporting remained an essential element to the U.S. political process, which said was now too grim now to even be described as a “carnival.”
“When our elected officials and our political campaigns become entirely untethered from reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations,” Obama said at the awards dinner for the Robin Toner prize, which honors the late New York Times political correspondent.
“It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society,” he said.
Obama, speaking to a room of journalists, didn’t quite resort to scolding during his remarks. But he was firm in his assertion that journalists must uphold a higher standard when reporting on presidential candidates.
“A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It’s to probe and question and to dig deeper and to demand more,” he said. “The electorate would be better served if that happened.”
He acknowledged a changing media landscape, and said it would be essential to provide more “entertaining” news as Americans’ attention spans are diverted elsewhere.
But he insisted that standards must still apply.
“There is enormous pressure on journalists to fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary, and Twitter rumors, and celebrity gossip and softer stories,” Obama said.
“That has consequences for our lives and the life of the country,” he said, adding that media corporations — while still beholden to deliver profits for shareholders — also have an “obligation to invest a good chunk of that profit back into news, back into public affairs, and to maintain certain standards and to not dumb down the news.”
In his seven years in office, Obama has often chided the media for what he’s characterized as shallow or incomplete reporting. He’s lamented an “if it bleeds, it leads” attitude that places spectacle over substance, and deemed the American media “Balkanized” for the fragments that appeal only to certain demographics.
But his own administration has also come under scrutiny for making it harder for some journalists to conduct the kind of work he himself advocated. Federal agencies reported earlier this month a 55% increase in the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, the channel journalists often use to obtain government information.
Obama acknowledged some of those shortcomings, saying that journalists are “supposed to push those in power for more evidence and access” that he sometimes cannot provide.
But he said American reporters held freedoms — and responsibilities — unseen in the rest of the world.
“I may not always agree with everything you report or write — in fact it’s fair to say I do not — but if I did that’d be an indication that you weren’t doing your job,” he said.
Recounting a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a recent article examining his foreign policy, Obama recalled telling his counterpart there were areas he disputed.
“I pointed out to him, of course, ‘Unlike you, Vladimir, I don’t get to edit the piece before its published,'” Obama said.