Obama Skirts Traditional Media To Get His Message Out

Aug 8, 2013
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Of course, the president himself is also talking about the health care marketplaces. Presidents have always longed to reach the people directly, bypassing the big national news organizations. President Obama has taken this effort to greater lengths than his predecessors, exploiting a media landscape that is changing faster than at any time in the nation's history. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the White House has adapted to this quickly shifting media environment.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama granted the New York Times an interview a couple of weeks ago. It was the paper's first interview with him in three years. The Huffington Post, itself a creation of the last decade, ran the headline: "A Rare Sit-Down with a Newspaper." Since then, the president has taken questions in three other settings, none of them what you'd call a traditional news outlet.

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SHAPIRO: Yesterday, Obama became the first president ever to answer questions on Zillow, a website that sells homes. It makes sense, since he wanted to focus on making housing accessible to more people.

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SHAPIRO: The night before, he did an interview with NBC, but not NBC News.

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SHAPIRO: Jay Leno interviewed the president just before Patti Labelle performed on "The Tonight Show." It was a substantive, newsy conversation that ranged from terrorist threats to Russia to what Leno called Obama's bromance with Republican Senator John McCain.

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SHAPIRO: And those examples don't begin to scratch the surface of the non-traditional interviews President Obama's done. He's used Google, Twitter, Facebook and more. And those are not even news organizations. Steven Livingston calls them information-conveying mechanisms. He's a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

STEVEN LIVINGSTON: Today, the president and his advisors have to think through who the audience is they are trying to reach, and what is the most likely outlet that would accomplished that.

SHAPIRO: Do you think, on the whole, this is a wise strategy?

LIVINGSTON: It's a necessary strategy. The wisdom is found in the necessity of it.

SHAPIRO: Audiences are fragmented. A generation ago, most of the nation sat down in the evening to watch one of three network TV news shows. There's no longer anything like that nightly gathering of the American people in their living rooms. That's a challenge for the White House, but it's also an opportunity. President Bush used to dismissively refer to the White House Press Corps as the filter. Now the White House can avoid the filter altogether.

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SHAPIRO: Every White House does press releases, but this administration produces weekly videos, behind-the-scenes photos and countless other channels of communication, almost like a state-run news service. Arun Chaudhary used to be President Obama's White House videographer.

ARUN CHAUDHARY: Before me, there was never a personal videographer to a president, or somebody who would capture the sort of off-the-cuff backstage moments, kind of like the White House photographer has done since the '60s.

SHAPIRO: And before him, there was never a way for the White House to share that video directly with the world. Chaudhary says Obama may have changed political communication by reaching out to supporters directly, but they were just following the lead of the private sector.

CHAUDHARY: Anyone who can get their point of view out unfiltered is going to try to do that because it's their point of view. And, you know, not only are they entitled to it, but they're entitled to tell their story. And I think people are taking advantage of that more and more.

SHAPIRO: So here's where things stand today: the legacy media, as they're called, are scrambling to stay in the game. President Obama has not done an interview with the Washington Post, for example, in the last four years. A week ago, reporters at the Post watched the president give an interview to Amazon.com. And this week, they found out that the owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is about to be the new owner of their paper. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.