President Barack Obama’s appearance on funnyordie.com’s parody show “Between Two Ferns,” where he took mock questions from comic Zach Galifianakis, was a lot of things: funny, unusual, an intriguing way to sell Obamacare and very popular. One thing it was not, though, was an “interview” — unless you’re White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Carney was defending the administration’s aggressive campaign to get young people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. To work, the insurance marketplaces known as exchanges need millions of young, relatively healthy people to join to offset older, relatively less healthy people.
“You've seen that effort include, you know, the president doing an interview with Zach Galifianakis, and you've seen in efforts undertaken by athletes and other celebrities,” Carney told reporters at his daily question-and-answer session in the White House press briefing room.
“And you'll see it in the kinds of interviews that the president will give and others have engaged in because unfortunately it's not enough for me to make the case to you here, for the president to give a speech covered by you,” he went on. “A lot of folks, millions and millions and millions of Americans, and certainly a huge percentage of young Americans, aren't listening or watching or reading what the people in this room are producing.”
“So in order to reach them, we have to, you know, be creative, and that's what we've done,” he said.
That’s some quality trolling of the media by Carney, a former Time magazine bureau chief.
But the Funny or Die appearance was still not an “interview.” Obama gave largely scripted answers to largely scripted, mock-hostile questions from Galifianakis. In one, the actor asked “I have to know: What is it like to be the last black president?” Obama’s deadpan response: “Seriously? What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”
Carney’s comments came on a day when Obama’s schedule called for interviews with local TV anchors from New England, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego. “While in Washington, the local anchors will spend the day with behind-the-scenes access to the White House and the President’s top advisers,” Obama’s press shop advertised.
Despite snobbery against local TV anchors among some in the White House press corps, and the White House’s efforts to dazzle reporters who don’t walk daily through the gates at 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, those interviews aren’t always 100 percent safe.
Obama had one notably testy exchange in April 2011 with Brad Watson of WFAA of of Texas. "Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?" Obama said to Watson. The reporter described it slightly differently in his account: “After the interview, Mr. Obama pointed out that he doesn't like an interviewer challenging his comments.” (The back-and-forth made national headlines.)
On Thursday, Obama will make his first appearance since taking office on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
For the most part, the president’s efforts to go around the mainstream media aren’t really a big deal. His aides have a corporate marketer’s instinct to go where their audience is, or may be, and that means reaching beyond the mainstream media. (In George W. Bush's day, the White House enlisted conservative talk radio and local TV anchors to skirt the White House press corps.)
Social media has largely come of age in the Obama era, and the White House has quite understandably turned to Reddit, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and other platforms to spread its message.
But the strategy turns toxic when the White House effectively covers itself — when it excludes traditional media from news events involving the president, and produces its own newslike product, typically a photo or a video vetted by the press office that jealously guards his image and promotes his agenda.
The result is effectively a state-run outlet with an unfair and unhealthy edge over independent news media. The association that represents White House reporters has been in talks with Obama’s press aides (including Carney) to find a compromise that would improve the news media’s access to events.