In a recent interview with Accuracy in Media, Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today, said that “the media have been a huge factor in President Obama maintaining the job approval rating that is not at 50%, but just a little bit below. I think he works very hard at courting that,” said Benedetto. “He knows how the media cover him. He takes full advantage of it. He makes sure that he’s out there all the time—and that’s part of the game.”
Benedetto was part of the White House press corps from Presidents Reagan through George W. Bush, and covered every presidential campaign over that period since 1984, and every national political convention since 1972. He teaches courses on politics and elections at American University, and still writes commentary, most recently for Real Clear Politics, The Washington Times, and Politico. He is also the author of Politicians Are People, Too, which was published in 2006.
Benedetto describes the media today as being “so far to the Left that if you just try to be fair, and say, to do a certain thing, ‘Let’s be fair, let’s cover this fairly,’ or ‘Let’s analyze this objectively,’ you run the risk of being accused of being a Right-winger.”
Regarding how the Obama administration deals with the press, he said, “reporters who write tough stories are hit pretty hard by insiders in the administration. Therefore, they run the risk of being cut off. This is an administration that knows very well how to work the press, and reward those who they like by giving them leaks and inside information—naturally, spun the way they want it to be spun in hopes of getting out the story out that they want to get out.”
Richard Benedetto was also an eyewitness to the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and he described for us exactly what he saw and did that day.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Benedetto said that he doesn’t believe that respect around the globe for America has increased under the Obama administration, and that support for the war in Afghanistan has dropped significantly during that period. He also believes that Obama has “repeatedly divided the nation and helped create resentment between classes.” Below are excerpts from the interview, which took place on April 12th. You can read the transcript or listen to the complete interview here.
BENEDETTO: [Writing for USA Today] requires you to get to the heart of the story fast. It puts a great premium on facts. It does not put a great premium on opinion, mainly because there’s just no room for that kind of thing. What you have to do is give the people the straight story in a short amount of space. The notion that, somehow or other, people spend long periods of time reading long stories is just sort of false. So it was great training, because to become a better and tighter writer—it’s much easier to write long than it is to write short, so it was terrific training.
BENEDETTO: [On September 11, 2001] I was driving into Washington along 395, which parallels the Pentagon, and as I was approaching the Pentagon and listening to the radio in my car—already the news was that New York City had been attacked with these airplanes—I heard an airplane coming from my left shoulder, behind me, very loud and very low. I knew something was weird, because usually, if you’re heading that way, if you see any airplanes, they would be going across your vision—not behind you—because of the international airport, Reagan International Airport. I look up, I see this American Airlines plane just parallel to my car, about, oh, probably, 100, 150 feet above it. I shouted to myself—I was alone—“That plane’s going to crash!” And, sure enough . . . . This appeared behind the bridge that I was headed for, and I saw the big puff of smoke, and the big fireball. I continued driving about 100 more feet, then pulled my car over to the side, got out, ran under the bridge, and headed over to the Pentagon.
BENEDETTO: There were a lot of stories that I hadn’t told about politicians that really never got into the newspaper—or, if they got into the paper, they got in as peripheral pieces, rather than as standard pieces. I thought that I’d had some great experiences that I wanted to share. So, as I sat down to do that, I realized that I wasn’t out to get anybody, I was out to just talk about the politicians I’d met…As I wrote it, I didn’t have a title in mind or anything, but as I wrote, I said, “This book actually comes out as kind of a celebration of politicians!”—the human side of politicians—so that’s how I came up with the title Politicians Are People, Too.
On Going Into Iraq
BENEDETTO: First of all…there is that feeling that, somehow or other, had the press been tougher, we might not have gone into Iraq. There is a myth out there that, somehow or other, the day after 9/11, we invaded Iraq. It was eighteen months after—one-and-a-half years after the 9/11 bombing came the invasion of Iraq. We debated this thing for eighteen months! It’s out there. All you have to do—and I’ve assigned students to do this, because they have this same feeling—is go out and find news articles that were written during the time that we’re questioning the wisdom of doing it! You know, there’s no shortage of news articles being written, everywhere from The New York Times to Time magazine to USA Today, that questioned the wisdom of going into Iraq. I think Time magazine did a cover story, “Eight Reasons Why We Should Not Invade Iraq.” All you have to do is do the empirical research. It will show you plenty of news articles where the public never bought it. The public bought the idea of going into Iraq, it was like a snowball rolling downhill—what you had going in the public psyche, at that particular time, was the need for some response, revenge.
ARONOFF: Now, when you left USA Today—and now you write columns—dare I say that your writings, and you, appear to lean to the right, politically? Is that true? Was it always true?
BENEDETTO: No. I think that—no. I think that what’s happened—things have gotten so distorted. In fact, the media seems to be so far to the Left that if you just try to be fair, and say, to do a certain thing, “Let’s be fair, let’s cover this fairly,” or “Let’s analyze this objectively,” you run the risk of being accused of being a right-winger.
BENEDETTO: Because the conventional position is to the left. So if you sort of question that, then, somehow or other, you’re seen as being a conservative. You’re seen as being a Republican. You’re seen as being a right-winger. I’m only doing what I was taught to do, going all the way back to journalism school, and that is, give people good information, and let them figure out what to do with it. I’m not there to proselytize anybody. I’m there to give people the straight story. They can figure things out for themselves. What we think we need to do in the media today is, we need to tell people what to think. And that’s not our job.
Obama and the Media
ARONOFF: One of your columns was “Journalists’ Sob Stories Block Reform.” It talked about the way they present it, that Republicans are trying to slash everything, and just starve kids and throw Granny over the cliff—all that sort of thing. When you look at what’s happening again with the Ryan budget, which, actually, continues to grow the budget—they’re talking about spending $40 trillion over the next ten years, and today we’re spending, I guess, $3.6 or $3.7 trillion a year, so it’s clearly an increase—but it’s treated as just these brutal, devastating cuts to everything. But you blame journalists to a large extent for the way this is presented to us.
BENEDETTO: We take whatever person or group that is opposing a particular cut—they will come to us, they automatically come to us with their story about what these cuts are going to mean to them, and they have every horror story from starving children to old people being thrown out in the street. The media will play those stories rather than give a solid analysis of the budget itself. Under those kinds of circumstances, with the media talking about all the devastation if budget cuts will occur, the public is basically torn. They say, “We spend too much money,” but then they see all these stories about all the bad effects.
The President himself has played right into it—he knows that the media will play that, and he uses that kind of rhetoric in defending his budget, and justifying calls for increases in taxes, by saying that if we don’t do this, all these bad things are going to happen, that children won’t get any care, and food programs for the poor will be devastated—all these kinds of things. Nobody says, “What’s the real story here? Let’s look at that budget. Let’s look at this budget!” Nobody does that.
ARONOFF: You wrote that Obama, “Repeatedly divided the nation and helped create resentment between classes by asserting that those who depend on the federal government for support will suffer if the rich don’t pay more taxes.”
ARONOFF: So that’s happening again right now, with this so-called “Buffett Rule.”
ARONOFF: How do you see that, the way that’s being presented? Because Obama talked about how, if we do this, it would, “Stabilize our debt and deficit for the next decade.” But then Treasury’s numbers came out—showing it would raise, at most, $5 billion a year—so this week they shifted to saying it’s a basic issue of tax fairness.
ARONOFF: Nothing to do with closing the deficit.
BENEDETTO: That’s exactly right. The press should be playing those points. Every administration, every President, every Governor, every elected official is out to put together his story. It’s his story, and he’s trying to put it out as best he can, to make him—or her—look as good as she can make herself—themselves—look. Our job is to say, “Are they telling us the truth? Are they slanting the truth? What’s the real story here?” That’s our job. We’re not referees in a battle. Our job is to cut through the spin and give the people out there the full story, so that when somebody comes along, like the President, and talks about the Buffett Rule, the impression that he wants to create—and that we in the media leave—is that, somehow or other, these millionaires are getting away with something. Are they, or are they not? That should be a story. What are they getting with? Are they getting away with it? Are they not paying their fair share of taxes? Well, if you look at where the revenue comes from, millionaires and billionaires, the people who are making the most money, pay the most taxes in this country. I think it’s something like the top 5% of wage earners pay something like 40% of the federal taxes. But that’s not even part of the debate! It’s not even part of the story! Our job, in the press, is to give the story context and perspective. And we just don’t do it.
ARONOFF: Another column you had was titled “Media Abet Obama’s Aloofness on Tough Issues.” You say “Obama’s ability to avoid tough questions, skate above the fray and look presidential while his potential successors appear to be futilely flailing is not by accident. It is by White House design, abetted by a press corps that seems content with being shut out by the president and being spoon-fed the message of the day, rather than clamoring for more chances to ask him questions during this critical time.” Why is that? Is it access? Is it ideology? What—?
BENEDETTO: From what I gather—I’m not at the White House, but I do talk to White House reporters who are there, and some of the things I pick up are, first of all, there’s a very tight ship there, and reporters who write tough stories are hit pretty hard by insiders in the administration. Therefore, they run the risk of being cut off. This is an administration that knows very well how to work the press, and reward those who they like by giving them leaks and inside information—naturally, spun the way they want it to be spun in hopes of getting out the story out that they want to get out. The other thing is, I think there’s just a general feeling among the White House press corps as a whole that they kind of like the President’s policies, in their own way, and I think that is a factor in how they cover him. I think that back in the days when I was covering the George W. Bush administration, people in the White House press corps kind of liked George W. Bush as a person—they really did—but they didn’t like his policies too much, and they covered him accordingly. They liked Bush, but they gave him tough press. They like Obama, I guess, although not as a person, from what I hear—he’s not very friendly to the press corps, from what I hear from people, I have no firsthand knowledge of that, but I do have secondhand, that he’s not very friendly with the press corps that covers the White House—but at the same time, they don’t let that affect their coverage of him, in terms of the fact that the coverage, I think, coming directly out of the White House is pretty soft.
Coverage of Obama’s Foreign Policy
ARONOFF: Obama foreign policy: Has the U.S. regained the supposed lack of respect around the world that he inherited? Does killing bin Laden make him a successful foreign policy President?
BENEDETTO: I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think he’s increased our respect around the globe—certainly not with those people who we consider our enemies in the Middle East. I’m sure they don’t have any more respect for us now than they had five years ago. But the fact is that he himself, personally, tries to stay out of direct foreign policy involvement as much as he possibly can. Afghanistan is my favorite example: He never, never, never talks about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not going well. We know that. The American public—a majority of the American public—now thinks that being in Afghanistan is a mistake. That was not true when he first took office. But, on the other hand, it’s not seen. People don’t even think of Obama and Afghanistan in the same breath. By design, he doesn’t talk about it. When was the last time he gave a speech on Afghanistan—a direct speech where he went out and said, “I’m going to talk to the American people about what’s going on in Afghanistan, and justify our position there?” He hasn’t. He hasn’t done it. Because he doesn’t want to.
ARONOFF: It’s really even more cynical than that, because even most of his supporters believe that he doesn’t really believe in the mission there, and everything appears to have been sort of structured around the 2012 election: The surge; the announcement, at the time the surge was announced, of when we would be withdrawing; the rules of engagement—you know, it feels like our troops are sitting ducks there. Three years ago, they were talking about only 100 al-Qaeda forces, and that’s what we were there for, to root them out.
BENEDETTO: Mm-hmm. I just find it mind-boggling. We were so highly critical of George Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, but—I’m talking about the media—we’re certainly not so critical of Obama’s conduct of Afghanistan.
Working the Media
BENEDETTO: I think that the media have been a huge factor in President Obama maintaining the job approval rating that is not at 50%, but just a little bit below. I think he works very hard at courting that. He knows how the media cover him. He takes full advantage of it. He makes sure that he’s out there all the time—and that’s part of the game. As they say, 90% of the game is showing up, and the fact is, he’s out there all the time. He works real hard at doing all kinds of things to keep himself in the public eye, so that the public—which is not paying that much attention to the actual substance of what’s being said and talked about—says, “Oh, he’s working.” That’s important. That’s a factor to people. If you ask what Obama said today, people wouldn’t be able to tell you. But they would say, “I saw him on TV, he said something, so he must be working!” That works.•
Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at email@example.com