-By Warner Todd Huston
Journalists used to pride themselves on their independence. They once thought that hard questions were their stock and trade especially when it came to hurling those questions at politicians. But even as they congratulate each other for their efforts -- as NPR did recently -- it appears that hard questions and independence is much lower on their list these days where it concerns President Obama. As it happens journalists are only asking those questions that are pre-approved by the White House.
On September 11, NPR's Morning Edition gave a very warm welcome to Michael Lewis whose interviews of Barack Obama are soon to debut in the October issue of Vanity Fair. On NPR Lewis' interviews were called "compelling narratives" and his every utterance was given breathless audience.
Lewis was presented as a quintessential journalist, exploring the life of the president of the United States with inside, unparalleled access. But not once did NPR note to its audience that Lewis submitted his story to the White House for its pre-approval before it went to Vanity Fair.
Lewis and NPR don't seem to be the only ones allowing the White House to exercise veto power over their stories. The New York Times recently reported that a whole retinue of "journalists" commonly submit their work to Obama's campaign to get its approval of quotes and facts.
"Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign," The Times notes. This from the profession that used to pride itself on being the vaunted fourth estate, an important, autonomous arm vital for the health of America's democracy. Now, journalism is but an arm of Obama’s White House and re-election campaign.
Quite a fall, that.
For his part, Lewis claimed that little of his work was altered by team Obama. But that might not be surprising. After listening to the NPR story, one can see that Lewis was just as fawning over Obama as NPR was over him.
At the top of the NPR interview, for instance, Morning Edition host Rene Montagne accepted Lewis' characterization of Obama's much criticized dumping of the bust of Winston Churchill as but a "mundane" thing instead of the diplomatic faux pas it really was.
Without challenge by Montagne, Lewis dismissed the entire episode -- one to which our allies in England took quite a bit of umbrage -- as merely Obama's attempt to redecorate the Oval Office. It was something that was "ginned up into this kind of controversy," says Lewis.
But, this dismissive attitude belies the real situation. When Obama first came to office, one of the earliest things he did was to summarily reject the bust of Winston Churchill that was loaned to the White House by the people of Great Britain. The bust of Churchill was loaned to the White House to sit in the Oval Office as a show of support for the attacks the U.S. sustained on 9/11. The bust, though, was returned to the custody of British authorities as soon as Obama came to office.
It might not be surprising that Mr. Lewis' work was not redacted by the White House. At the end of his NPR interview, Lewis had only the most glowing words about the President's sensitivity.
"It's an incredibly unnatural job being president of the United States. You are cut off in such an odd way from the rest of the world and, for some people that may not be that big a deal, but for someone who's sort of sensitive like a writer and has the ability to interact with the world the way he did it's got to be very difficult to deal with."
No doubt Lewis' sycophancy was such that it warmed the hearts of the White House's journalist minders.