Ghavri: Obama the Media Master

by Anmol Ghavri | 5/5/16 5:30pm

If this week’s reaction to last Saturday’s 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is any indication, President Barack Obama was a better comedian than this year’s host, Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show.” Based on the reactions of the celebrities, political figures, pundits and journalists in the Washington Hilton ballroom last Saturday, you would think Obama was the comedian. Obama has traditionally done very well at the Correspondents’ Dinner, his success this year as a charismatic communicator and manipulator of the media is not an isolated event. Indeed, throughout his two terms as president, Obama and his administration have consistently shown themselves to be media masters. In our fast-paced 24/7 news cycle, being prepared to spin issues, frame actions and time public statements is an invaluable skill for the leader of the free world. Obama’s timing, charisma and media skills are impeccable, as evidenced by the White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech. Many conservatives would argue that the President’s media success is due to a liberal media bias. In reality, the media mastery is mostly due to a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping media coverage like friendly interviews and staged leaks and put them on steroids while adding new ones like social media, comedy, content creation and pop-culture references. Additionally, the liberal media is not the only media constituency benefiting from Obama’s savviness. Media organizations across the ideological spectrum are scrambling for access to Obama’s White House. Moreover, the American people love hearing from their president and do not hesitate to share and talk about Obama’s videos, photos, speeches and interviews on social media platforms. This has all led to a revolution in the White House-press relationship. The power balance between the White House and press has tipped toward the government. This is a development that the Obama White House — experts in digital media and no fan of the Washington press — has exploited effectively. Future presidents from both parties will copy and expand upon this approach. According to Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to former President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal “the balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press.” Nowadays, sensationalism and the endless media cycle has given the White House an opportunity to develop a media persona — contrary to the restraining effect one would expect. After all, a around the clock news cycle is primed for finding and blowing up every scandal, no matter its size. Obama and his adminstration have managed to turn this idea on its head by deploying well-organized and well-timed media statements that are often immeresed in the language and humor of the moment. During Saturday night’s dinner, Obama evoked current events. He used a video chock full of pop-culture references to depict a parody of his post-presidency plans. He chose to talk about GOP dinner attendees who were asked to order steak or fish, but who instead kept choosing House Speaker Paul Ryan, saying “that’s not an option, people.” Moreover, he cleverly skewered both the mainstream press and depicted his administration’s social media prowess, showing himself embroiled in a fictional Snapchat scandal. Ex-GOP presidential candidates John Kasich and Ted Cruz along with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are all well-spoken politicians, but none of them have the same media savviness and charisma that Obama demonstrated during his two terms. The 2016 presidential race has been largely dominated by mogul Donald Trump, who has repeatedly shown his media savviness. Using Twitter, Trump has managed to enthrall the news cycle, keeping all eyes on him. He may not be as eloquent as Obama, but Trump’s timing and charisma are as impeccable as the President’s. He is certainly better than Clinton at limiting, shaping and manipulating the media coverage of himself. Obama’s success as a media master provides an example for whoever finds themselves sitting in the Oval Office come 2017. Future presidents need to be prepared to handle the fast-paced news and social media cycle, and as Obama has demostrated, pop culture refreneces and charisma can go a long way. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while not as serious as a solemn address to the country, is a lighthearted medium by which a president can develop a relationship with the public and show of their charm. The American public will certainly miss Obama’s charismatic personality — I know I will.