There is not a current or former politician alive today who at some point in their careers hasn’t cursed out the media — publicly and privately — over perceived unfair or biased coverage.
News organizations have been vilified, sued for libel and, in the case of broadcast media, threatened with license revocations.
President Nixon even went to the United States Supreme Court to halt publication of news accounts which hadn’t even been printed yet — the Pentagon Papers. He lost.
The attempt last week by the Biden White House to strongarm major national media into adopting the Administration’s narrative in their coverage of the House Republican leadership opening an impeachment inquiry into the president is a bridge too far.
In a memo to major news organizations and eventually distributed to reporters, Ian Sams, of the White House counsel’s office, urged them to “ramp up scrutiny” of House Republican claims that the inquiry was appropriate based on information already gathered and made public.
“Covering impeachment as a process story is a disservice to the American public,” Sams wrote, arguing there is no evidence of presidential wrongdoing.
Reaching for the appropriate level of Administration outrage, Sams wrote: “Every day, liars and hucksters from Facebook to Fox peddle disinformation and lies” that Republicans have relied upon for the inquiry.
The memo went initially to CNN, New York Times, Associated Press, Fox News and CBS News, but gained wider circulation as it became public.
Rather than give news columns, editorial page commentaries and broadcast time to stories concerning possible impeachment and the conflicting responses to it — the process stories Sams obviously feels are a disservice — he has demanded coverage of the Administration’s narrative that the inquiry is based on “disinformation and lies.”
Influencing news coverage is a legitimate and proper endeavor used by both political parties in pursuit of favorable reports or the dismissal of less favorable ones. “Spin” is an entrenched part of the political/media universe, leading one cynic to describe its exercise thus: “Spinning is like shaving. If you don’t do it every day, you look like a bum.”
The public strongarm tactics employed by Sams, however, is neither legitimate nor proper, goes well beyond “spin” and may, in fact, turn back on the Administration from reporters and news executives who resent the interference from the highest levels of government into newsroom judgments.
While the memo does not contain explicit retaliatory threats, its harsh rhetoric implies consequences if its demands are ignored.
Reporters will listen to partisan political operatives but most will bristle and take offense at suggestions those partisan views have seeped into their coverage. Editorial pages traditionally are reserved for point of view positions — complimentary or critical — and, for the most part, walled off from straight news pages.
Sams’ memo suggests the wall should be dismantled.
Some Democrats fret that the memo also drags the White House and the president directly into the impeachment maelstrom and will open the way for reporters in the White House briefing room to bombard press secretary Karine Jean Pierre with questions about each new development as the House process plays out.
Her credibility is already on thin ice and she has demonstrated on more than one occasion she is out of her depth in dealing with politically fraught issues in particular, frequently refusing to answer or referring to pre-packaged responses.
Sams’ memo made her job that much more difficult — needlessly.
The relationship between the press and political figures is an adversarial one in which conflicts abound as a natural byproduct of that relationship. Each side has an agenda to advance — the media’s is one of ferreting out information and presenting it in an objective context while the politician’s is one of defining their actions as good government in the public interest with a reasonable dose of self- serving rhetoric.
The twain rarely meet — at least not completely or consistently — which is how it should be.
I spent my career in government as press spokesman for candidates and office holders alike at all levels, including two governors and a chief justice of the Supreme Court. Many was the time when — day or night, weekdays or weekends — it was necessary to talk an infuriated client off the ledge and convince him or her that the wiser course of action was to resist the temptation to call the reporters’ editor and ignore the slights or criticisms.
In most instances, my powers of persuasion won out. In other instances, it didn’t and led to the need for damage control and dousing political fires.
The impeachment inquiry will move forward without a vote of the full House and, if some Democratic insiders are correct in their assessment, will prove to be an embarrassing and costly mistake by the Republican leadership.
The failure to call for a vote is, their view, evidence of a lack of enthusiasm among Republicans who believe impeachment is not warranted at this point and requiring a vote would damage them politically.
In their view, Republicans will come across as vindictive and captive to those who are obsessed with political payback. Those arguments were heard from Republicans in response to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi moving two impeachment resolutions against former president Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020.
The media coverage will be extensive and political and personal criticisms will fill their air for reporters to sort out and present as cogently as possible and give the American people the choice of accepting or rejecting the findings.
Numerous polls have shown public confidence in the media in the low 20 percent range and a majority believing new coverage is biased or ideologically slanted.
Succumbing to the White House strongarm tactics will not restore trust and confidence. As shameless as the Sams memo was, the only thing more shameless would be the media following it.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.