Does Obama Need the Traditional Media? Yes and No.

As President Obama nears his 200th day in office, there’s one major thing we’ve learned about this White House: Increasingly, they don’t need the press. Case in point: Last night, administration officials posted a short video looking at the process by which Obama gets his mail. According to the White House, the president reads 10 letters from average people every day—correspondence culled from the literally tens of thousands of pieces of mail sent to Obama each week. This is not exactly breaking news. We’ve known about Obama and his letters for months—plenty of people have written about it and NBC included brief footage of the letters in its documentary on the Obama White House that aired in June. But the White House video goes significantly more in depth—showing the mail room where letters are sorted by topic and the staffers going through them to pick which ones will make it to the president’s desk. And then you have Obama himself reading the letters aloud and talking about the ones he’s read this week--most of them, he tells the camera, are about health care. (What a coincidence!) It looks and sounds like a news story, no doubt to the chagrin of TV reporters at the White House. The only real giveaway, besides the fact you never actually see or hear the interviewer, is a little logo identifying it as a video.

The goal here isn’t much different than what administration officials envisioned when they set up the White House Flickr account. As your Gaggler has written before, by opening up Obama’s world to the public in ways no other president has done before, they are giving a sense that the curtain has been raised, that the bubble has been punctured. They want to show that Obama, although he may be the leader of the free world, is a human being, just like you and me. People tend to support people they like, and Obama doesn’t want to repeat George W. Bush’s mistake of being too walled off and out of touch. But there’s a dueling component here in posting all these photos and videos: by doing it themselves, the White House controls the images and the story. They are bypassing the media filter to get out to the public exactly the points they desire to make, without the messiness of perhaps an unexpected question or an unflattering image. In some ways, they aren’t busting the presidential bubble but increasing it.

That’s not to say the White House has completely dumped the press─at least not yet anyway. They still need the traditional media. When Obama needs to use the bully pulpit─as he did on health care─he still turns to interviews with the TV networks and major print correspondents to get the word out, just as his predecessors did. But when things get rocky─and they always do, at some point─White House officials often look for other methods of lobbying the public. When poll numbers went south over the Iraq War, Bush began bypassing the White House press corps altogether in favor of focusing on local press in hopes of getting a more favorable story. The Obama White House is far savvier than that, particularly with its use of Twitter, YouTube and other Web outreach methods that can take “news” directly to the people. Who needs the press when you can simply do it yourself? The loss is that we don't get the full story. For instance, does Obama actually get to see letters from Americans who dislike his policies and does he respond? That's a question the White House video doesn't really answer─and it should.

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