President tries to win back press

The White House took a series of steps Wednesday to make up with the Washington press corps.

The wooing took several shapes and followed a disastrous press briefing on Tuesday at which White House press secretary Jay Carney was torn apart over the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records.

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To bolster President Obama’s free-press credentials, the White House announced Wednesday it had asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to reintroduce a press shield law that would allow media organizations to challenge subpoenas of phone records and offer legal protections for protecting confidential sources.

The White House also took the step of handing out records of emails related to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which is designed to push back at suggestions it has not been transparent and bolster its case it has been truthful about the attack.


Finally, Carney started his daily briefing on Wednesday with a bit of self-mockery, standing before a screen showing a montage of facial grimaces and contortions he made during Tuesday’s contentious briefing. He called it “The many faces of Jay.”

Obama has had a relatively good relationship with the press, which conservatives often complain is a potent part of Obama’s political base.

Former reporters and editors in Obama’s administration bolster such perceptions — including Carney , a former Time magazine reporter — as well as MSNBC host Chris Matthews’s “thrill up my leg” line about listening to Obama during the 2008 primaries. Conservatives argue the mainstream media have given Obama too much of a free pass, including on Benghazi.

Yet suggesting the press and Obama have a buddy-buddy relationship is an oversimplification.

Individual editors and reporters express frustration over the lack of access to Obama and the White House’s efforts to shape media narratives.

Tensions were on display Tuesday as Carney sought to fight off questions on the trio of controversies the White House has stumbled into, which include Benghazi, the Department of Justice’s fight with the AP and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups.

At one point during Tuesday’s briefing, Carney called a question from Alexis Simendinger, a reporter for Real Clear Politics who has covered three administrations, “preposterous” and then later added, “shake your head and editorialize, but let me finish.”

Obama himself sometimes seems to view press interviews and conferences as a chore, and he makes it clear he would rather hold speeches and events in front of friendly audiences.

Since taking office in 2009, Obama has held fewer press conferences and shorter question-and-answer sessions than his most recent predecessors.

As of April 30, Obama has held 84 press conferences compared to 99 and 142 from former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively. Obama has had 110 short question-and-answer sessions compared to 364 by Bush and 666 from Clinton, according to analysis provided to The Hill from Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University.

Kumar, who tracks Obama’s interactions with reporters, said the White House press and communications operations are “dismissive” of the importance of the White House press corps.

The president has repeatedly chastised cable news networks and routinely blamed the press for chasing trivial stories.

“If you listen to all the doom and gloom in Washington and politics, you’re watching cable TV, sometimes you might get kind of thinking nothing’s going right,” Obama said during a speech in Texas last week.

Obama prefers one-on-one interviews where he can speak on a particular topic to set the White House agenda. But he also chooses to take his message to the public himself through YouTube, Google hangout chats and Twitter.

“The president sets the tone for the administration’s press relations, and President Obama often appears to consider dealing with the press more of a distasteful chore than a democratic obligation,” said Julie Mason, a SiriusXM radio host and former board member of the White House Correspondents’ Association who covered the White House under George W. Bush and Obama.

 “This administration is not an advocate for the press,” Mason said. “For proof please see photo handouts, readouts of meetings, selective background briefings, infrequent press conferences, limited public schedule, shrunken access, crackdown on leakers and surveilling journalist phone records.”

Simendinger argues Obama wanted to do press relations in a hands-off way and it is coming back to hurt him.

“In this case, this president — and it comes from him — has conducted his press relations in a hands-off, controlled way. And right now it’s out of his control; it’s beyond his management. We have an active press corps asking, what are you doing, and will you explain? But we’ve had years of not getting answers.”

This story was updated at 8:20 a.m.