The Obama administration has quickly found itself the subject of criticism unparalleled in its tenure. While no one expected President Obama to be immune from the second-term curse, it is doubtful anyone only a few short weeks ago would have expected a spate of major controversies to either break or reach critical mass and with such ferocity as those involving Benghazi, IRS targeting and press wiretapping by the Justice Department.
While the White House talking heads played Whac-a-Mole, PR professionals watched from the sidelines and dredged up the most tired of crisis communication axioms – Get the bad news out quickly and get it behind you, they said. But the administration could do neither because the bad news simply hasn’t stopped coming. Each new day brings new allegations and intrigue.
Significant legal and public policy questions surround the Obama administration’s actions in all three controversies. They will be investigated, researched and reported on long into the next election cycle. The act of wiretapping journalists at The Associated Press, which we now know extended to reporters at Fox News and CBS, has a more immediate and chilling quality that threatens the very essence of our political heritage — the free press.
It is true the media love controversy, but it is equally true they don’t cover controversy simply for sensation. They search for fact and true misdeeds. They report both sides of the issues. What the media traditionally unify around, however, are assaults on the foundations of their profession and our society. The federal government’s monitoring and intimidating an open and free press is just that; an assault on the First Amendment, the most sacred tenet of the American experiment.

The Obama administration came into power under a promise of transparency, openness and accountability. The AP scandal eviscerates that promise and erodes credibility of the administration. To recover, what the president needs to do is ignore the tired axioms and instead follow the example of smart corporations that find themselves in the midst of a crisis — demonstrate responsible leadership action, get control of the story and be visible, accessible and — above all — truthful.
Being truthful opens one to greater criticism and potentially worse. We cannot know where these controversies will lead and hyperbolic comparisons to Watergate are, for now, ill considered. But honesty pays dividends, and this president must reassure the American people that their fundamental right to a free press and free speech is not endangered. When companies find themselves in crisis, they gain greatly by saying what they do and do not know. When presidents bob and weave, it’s not only embarrassing to watch but damaging to their ability to govern.
Over the years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have suffered for their belief that press freedom could be abridged, amended or encroached. Politicians have wrongly believed that the support they enjoyed from the media gave them carte blanche to abuse it. Now, a politician who enjoyed a level of media support unparalleled in modern times may be about to learn a very hard lesson in the limits of that support. The question of the moment is, “Will the press stand up on this one?” Odds makers and American history say they will, and America will be better for it.

Stanton is president and CEO of Stanton Communications.