Obama presidency: the dangers of bypassing traditional media

The Obama presidency has already shown itself to be far more Internet-savvy and open to communicating directly with the people.  The "YouTube president," as many are already calling him, made significant use of what the New York Times called his  "YouTubing-Facebooking-texting-Twittering grass-roots organization," during the campaign and his team are looking into how these new media can be used by the administration. The refurbished WhiteHouse.gov website claims that Obama has committed to making his administration "the most open and transparent in history" and that the president’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review. The site seems to be a kind of social networking portal, where dialogue can take place directly between the people and the government.

This by-passing of the traditional media works just fine for an event such as the inauguration, when the inauguration team’s Twitter feed and blog provided fans with updates throughout the day. But when it comes to politics and the day-to-day workings of government, different issues arise with regards to ‘information’ direct from the source.  It is essential to remember the vital role that traditional media has played for the past few hundred years as a intermediary between those in power and the masses: to provide an independent informed voice that can filter out the propaganda amongst the real news. Obviously news outlets have often had their own political agendas, but by seeking out more than one source for each story, the audience has generally had a pretty good chance to get a clear picture of what is going on.

Obama’s administration got off to a rather bad start with the press by refusing to allow journalists to photograph the president in the Oval Office on his first day, spurring a boycott of official White House photographs by the world’s three largest news agencies. The Columbia Journalism Review pointed out the "conspicuous absence of the press from Obama’s transparency agenda," and Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has expressed his fear that "They’re beginning to create their own journalism, their own description of events of the day, but it’s not an independent voice making that description."

This tendency to target the people directly, coupled with the fact that many news outlets are cutting back on reporting, particularly investigative reporting, could turn out to be worrying indeed. Increased transparency is all very well, but there is the danger, as CJR put it, that "direct democracy" could veer into "direct publicity," if an intelligent, informed journalistic voice which analyses and provides commentary is left out of the equation altogether.  As new organisation created by newspaper executives to fight back against misrepresentation Newspaper Project commented, "newspapers remain essential to our democratic system of government, serving as a watchdog against crime and corruption, and a guide dog for information that allows the public to make informed decisions on the issues of the day." Is the Obama administration going to respect this long-standing function of traditional media?

Source: Columbia Journalism Review, New York Times