As his feud with Fox News has intensified—and as his pathetic attempt to overturn a legitimate election becomes more harebrained—Donald Trump has drifted further and further into the fringes. Newsmax and One America News Network, both possible homes for the president come January 20, have usurped Fox’s place in the president’s heart. Gateway Pundit has usurped the Drudge Report, Real Clear Politics, and Breitbart. Trump’s postpresidency—and his rumored 2024 presidential campaign—will be rooted in the fever swamps of right-wing media.
Former President Barack Obama’s reemergence to promote A Promised Land, his new memoir covering his first term in office, provides a tidy contrast. Obama has done a barrage of highly traditional media hits: interviews with The Atlantic, NPR, 60 Minutes. In these interviews and in his book, he has resumed a role he often played during his two terms in office: media critic.
Obama’s relative youth, his campaign’s facility with social media, and his own willingness to appear in unlikely places (Mark Maron’s WTF podcast, Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns) have exaggerated his comfort with left-of-the-dial media sources. (Peggy Noonan in a recent column mourned the decline in presidential decorum: “The future is an endless loop of Barack Obama on Between Two Ferns, stamping on your face, forever.” Much better than a boot, in my opinion!) In truth, Obama has always been deferential to traditional media that tacks toward the center and skeptical of nosier, newer outlets.
In both A Promised Land and its accompanying media tour, Obama longs for an older, less rowdy media environment. In the book, “grievances with the media are a constant theme,” writes The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish. The reaction to his postinauguration tour of the Middle East—dubbed an “apology tour” by conservative outlets—is a reminder of “how splintered our media environment had become.” His takeaway from HuffPost’s publication of his infamous “clinging to guns or religion” remark leads to a stern lecture about circular firing squads: “This is what separates even the most liberal writers from their conservative counterparts: the willingness to flay politicians on their own side.” Speaking to Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama bemoaned, “We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.”
Even as media has profoundly changed, Obama’s perspective has largely stayed the same. Speaking at Cronkite’s memorial service in 2009, he made a similar case:
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. And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. “What happened today?” is replaced with “Who won today?” The public debate cheapens. 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?
Obama’s philosophy on the media is not hard to discern: Gatekeepers are good and serve as democratic stewards. It’s easy to see why he’s a fan of The Atlantic, whose philosophy hews closely to his own. The internet, in this formulation, is a Pandora’s box, introducing demons of partisanship and conflict that have deeply eroded public trust in democratic institutions. (His criticism of HuffPost, in which he chides the outlet for not acting more like those on the right, feels more like sour grapes.) Obama’s own vague fixes for this problem—he told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley that we need to “bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction”—reflect the vagueness of his criticisms. It’s a classic Obama appeal to our better angels, but it’s also rooted in distrust for a new media environment that, while boisterous, has served to introduce voices that were previously silenced by traditional gatekeepers.
It’s also a reminder that the Obama administration was hardly a friend of the press. Public records requests were rejected at a record clip. The press was, by and large, kept at arm’s length, while the president embarked on more P.R.-friendly interviews. Most disturbingly, his administration aggressively hunted leakers and used the Espionage Act against them—paving the way for Donald Trump’s own crackdowns—and got a federal appeals court to severely limit reporters’ privileges when dealing with government sources.
As Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop wrote, “Obama did not, as president, meaningfully crack down on the Big Tech firms whose platforms he now perceives as a danger to democracy; on the whole, his administration was friendly toward them.” These platforms, moreover, have a virtual monopoly on online advertising, which has gutted the journalism industry at nearly every level.
Obama’s media criticisms help to explain the way he views his own role in public life. He has tried be like Cronkite—always cool, delivering comfort and hard truths when necessary. That, too, is something of a throwback: a politician who constantly seeks the center of all aspects of political and cultural life. His book and music playlists—the most recent of which, featuring groaners like “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2, resembles a CD you’d buy at Starbucks—are mainstream to the point of being normcore. They hearken back to an era of a shared monoculture, the loss of which Obama clearly mourns.
He acknowledges that there’s no going back. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he told Goldberg. “You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference.” But he sees no silver lining. “Without this, it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things.” Obama clearly thought of himself as someone who could, by sheer force of will and charisma, engineer the consensus he feels we have lost. A Promised Land and the interviews promoting it are an acknowledgment that he couldn’t.