Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today and Gannett News Service. He reported on local, state, and national government and politics for nearly 40 years and continues to write political commentary for publications such as Politico.
Explaining the current election cycle, Benedetto said, “This campaign has kind of flabbergasted me because I watch how the White House is being covered by the press corps, because it seems to be so well managed by the White House, and the press seems to be just going along with whatever.”
During his speech the topic of Benghazi came up. “You would have thought that the Libyan bombing was Romney’s fault, from the media coverage.” Although Benedetto pointed out that some this coverage was an unforced error by Romney. He explained, “Part of it was Romney’s mistake, and that is his getting out in front of the President. He was a perfect target. Once he got out there, in front of the President, he was fair game.”
One of the fundamental problems at the root of media bias, according to Benedetto, has to do with why journalists decide to enter that line of work. “So who’s attracted to the business? Well, a lot of people who think that journalism is a way to promote a cause. I tell people, ‘If you’ve got a cause, go to work for the cause; don’t go to work in the newspaper business.’”
Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today and Gannett News Service. Mr. Benedetto reported on local, state, and national government and politics for nearly 40 years and continues to write political commentary for publications such as Politico. Benedetto is a founding member of USA Today, having joined in 1982. He wrote the national newspaper’s first Page One cover story. Benedetto covered the White House during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He has covered nearly every national political convention since 1972 and every presidential campaign since 1984. In 2006 he became an adjunct professor of Journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. Benedetto is also the author of the book, Politicians Are People, Too.
Obamanation: A Day of Truth
Accuracy in Media Conference 9/21/2012
Speaker: Richard Benedetto
“How the Media are Impacting the Election”
Transcribed by J. C. Hendershot & Bethany Stotts
BENEDETTO: I come from the mainstream media. I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter. I like to talk about being a reporter. I never wanted to be an editor; I always considered that the dark side. This campaign has kind of flabbergasted me because I watch how the White House is being covered by the press corps, because it seems to be so well managed by the White House, and the press seems to be just going along with whatever. Now, though, I woke up this morning, as I do every morning, to the NPR news—no, that’s not it.
BENEDETTO: Okay. “President [Barack] Obama’s Easy Ride.” Accountability: That’s what we were taught to do. When you’re a government politics reporter, the name of the game is to hold those people in power accountable for their actions and what they say. It’s up to us—we, the reporters—to go out and do that. I don’t see it being done very much with regard to this President. In fact, it’s not done very much at all: We have a news media more interested in playing “Gotcha!” with Mitt Romney than making the President defend his stewardship. When you have an incumbent President—in the case of the last time we had that in an election, 2004, George Bush wasn’t able to skate away from anything. But we have a President whose White House and campaign staff clearly manage and manipulate the media, and they do it cleverly. They’re very good at it, and I’ll give you one example. We have a media letting them get away with it. I mean, that’s it in a nutshell right there.
This morning, I woke up, like I do every morning, to the NPR news. I have my radio set on WAMU and I listen to the NPR news that comes on in the morning, and I usually hear the entire two-hour cycle of Morning Edition on there. I mean, it’s not that I’m sitting there listening to it, but it’s on while I’m getting ready to get out; I hear usually everything. This morning I was awakened by the lead story that “Secretary of Defense [Leon] Panetta announced, today, that the American troops that had been sent in under the surge there, by President Obama, have now been withdrawn.” You’ve probably heard that story. And what’s wrong with that story? Just what’s wrong with that headline?
Anybody? What’s wrong with that headline?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Who are they replaced by? I mean, who replaced them?
BENEDETTO: But that should part of the story. What’s wrong with that headline?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: He never ordered a surge.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I don’t think he ordered a surge.
BENEDETTO: Yeah, he did order a surge.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: He did?
BENEDETTO: Yeah. This is something that’s very cleverly done; you don’t even pick up on it: Who’s announcing it? Panetta, not the President.
The President should be announcing this. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to because it’s going to interfere with whatever his message is today. His message is economics; his message is “Mitt Romney’s out of touch;” his message is Mitt Romney’s “47%.” He doesn’t want to get involved in this, just like he doesn’t want to get involved in Libya, and so he lets his surrogates go out and do those announcements, just like he let Eric Holder make the announcement when they were going to hold Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial in New York City. “It was Holder’s decision—” well, it wasn’t Holder’s decision, it was the President’s decision, but they didn’t let the President make the announcement, they let Holder make the announcement. So one of the things that the President does, he lets other people in the administration do the talking for him when he doesn’t want to be involved with that issue, and as long as the press doesn’t hold him accountable for that, well, he’ll get away with it.
Now, the President made a speech, a big speech, at West Point, when he announced that the surge was going in, in December 2009. He’s only made two subsequent speeches on Afghanistan since. Only two. Only two. He never talks about it. He doesn’t have to. Now here we have, in Afghanistan, going on right now, a major change in policy, the policy being that we were going to train their soldiers to take over their security, and now we’ve suspended it because it’s not working. Yet what did Secretary Panetta say today? He said, “Oh, we’re pulling them out because our mission has been successful.” Nobody said, “Well, where’s the success?” It’s the press’s job; that’s our job.
Why is this happening? Is it because the media are biased? Is it because the White House and Obama are so clever? Is it because the Romney campaign is inept? Is it because we live in a different media culture? I think it’s all of those things. It’s all of those things: We do certainly live in a different media culture, and this administration has learned how to manage that media culture better than most so that the President doesn’t expose himself to very big questions. When the President doesn’t expose himself to the big questions, as this President does not, then it’s up to the press to say, “He’s not exposing himself to the big questions.” And if he doesn’t do it again, you write it again tomorrow, and you write it again the next day, and you write it again the next day, and then all of a sudden you say, “Hey, how come he’s not—?” and the public starts to come around to thinking Hey, why isn’t he ever answering any questions? But as long as you’re willing to go along with that management, you’re not going to do anything. The press should be putting the pressure on the President.
You would have thought that the Libyan bombing was Romney’s fault, from the media coverage. Part of it was Romney’s mistake, and that is his getting out in front of the President. He was a perfect target. Once he got out there, in front of the President, he was fair game. And what does he do? He takes questions, he answers questions, and he gets himself into more deep water. The President comes out afterward, and makes his announcement. Does he take any questions? No. Did the reporters try to ask him questions? Yes: There was a question shouted at him, if you heard him walking away in the Rose Garden that day last week—it seems like a year ago already—and the question was “Is this an act of war?” Did anybody hear that? Somebody asked. Well, he didn’t answer the question. Had he answered the question—he knows darn well, if he’d turned around and answered the question, no matter how he answered, that’s the news. But he was smart enough not to answer that question. So what does he do that evening? He goes on and does a CBS television interview. Now that’s entirely different. That’s not a press conference. When he does these television interviews with one reporter, one-on-one, it’s not the same thing, because, usually, they’re softball, and the reporters are intimidated. I’ve interviewed Presidents face-to-face. I know how intimidating that can be. When you’re sitting in the White House, sitting there with the President of the United States, and you’re asking him questions, that’s pretty intimidating. But when you’re in a press conference and you’re just shouting questions at the President, you’ll ask anything. When you’re sitting there face-to-face with him, it’s a lot harder to do. People don’t want to do it.
So what is the headline coming out? His line was “Mitt Romney shoots before he aims.” That was the news out of the interview. And then he did another interview shortly after, with Telemundo, where they asked him a question—“Is Egypt an ally or an enemy?’—and he answered it ambiguously. “They’re not an enemy, they’re not an ally.” And the story was, he had to back that away; he got himself in a little trouble. You see, when the press starts to ask questions, you no longer can control the message—but as long as the press isn’t asking the questions, you can control the message, and he controls it better than most. That’s one of the reasons why he’s been able to maintain a 45% to 50% job approval rating through all this.
I covered George H. W. Bush at the height of his reelection campaign, when the economy was going down and then coming back up. We were on his back every day—every day—which is what our job is. What is the role in a campaign, especially when you have an incumbent President? We have to provide accurate information on who the candidates are, we have to provide accurate information on what the candidates are doing and saying, we have to provide informed and balanced discussion and analysis of what the candidates are doing and saying, we have to push the candidates to discuss those things they don’t want to be discussing and should be, and we have to point out those things that the candidates are avoiding. That’s what my job out there on the campaign trail is. It’s not—it’s not—to just be a secretary to whatever the candidate is saying. So we don’t get much of that—we don’t do that anymore. Now, I come from the old school; that’s how I was taught to do it; I don’t know if people are being taught.
Now, I teach journalism and political science at American University. My students have heard this lecture. Several times. So, if they’re going to go out and do the same thing, well, they’ve already been forewarned not to. But the thing is, I had a reporter call me Wednesday night from Le Figaro; she’s a reporter here in Washington, she writes for Le Figaro in Paris. She was working on a story—she called me and wants me to comment—and the story was “Is Mitt Romney Finished?” I mean, that was the story that she wanted to write. Basically I gave her the same lecture. If it wasn’t for the press, this story—and even with all this good press that Obama gets, he’s still running pretty tight, which means that the public is not always fooled. You can fool them part of the time, but they’re not always fooled. They’re going to react to those things that they think are affecting them, and however they feel when the time comes, voting time, is going to be what they’re going to do. But the fact of the matter is that our job—my job, the reporter’s job—is to go out there and make sure that these candidates, and the President—especially the President—the questions that I would be asking the President right now are, “How are your policies affecting what’s going on in the Middle East?” first of all; second of all, “What about Afghanistan? What is the progress in Afghanistan? How would you assess the progress in Afghanistan? If the reason for being there is to train the troops to take over their own security and now you’ve had to suspend it, well, where is the success there?” And “Has your policy of extending an open hand instead of a clenched fist worked?” Those are the questions that have to be asked of the President, but he doesn’t put himself in a position and nobody asks him. So what are you going to do? I don’t know. I just can light the candles I try to light, and then work on younger journalists who are coming into the business, try to tell them, “This is the way you’re supposed to do it.”
But I’ll stop there and I’ll take your questions. Yes?
ARONOFF: Go ahead.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: What does the liberal media have to gain by being biased? I mean, are they getting paid under the table—
BENEDETTO: No, no—
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: —do they get power—
BENEDETTO: No, they’re not. I think that’s what happened is that this new media environment that we live in tends toward causing people to become politically active, rather than reporters. You know, when I got into the business, back in the middle 1960s, when I was a young kid and I got into the business, the people I went to work for as editors were World War II veterans—that’s an entirely different mindset than young people who are editors and in news organizations today, entirely different—and one of the things that they really insisted upon was fairness.
“Wow, you show us some favoritism in a story and you’re going to get it bounced right back at you. You do it too much, and you lose your job.” That’s how serious they were about that. Go get them! They didn’t care if it was a Democrat or a Republican, just go get them. Hold them accountable. Not that you want to go get them because you want to tear them down—I always tell students, “One of the points, we don’t go after political figures for the purpose of tearing them down; we try to make them be accountable so the system works better. Our job is to make the system work better.” That’s what our job is. Our job is not to tear anything down. If the chips fall and something is torn down, well, we want to rebuild it so it gets better. It’s not that we go out there just because we’re sharpshooters and want new notches on our belts. But that’s—
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: That’s changed?
BENEDETTO: That’s changed. I think that young people attracted to journalism, now, a lot of them are political activists, rather than journalists. A lot of people who went into the news business when I was getting into the news business were people who wanted to really be novelists, and they couldn’t make a living at it. They really wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and [F.] Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike, and people like that; they couldn’t make a living at it, but they liked to write. In fact, many journalists in the early 20th century were not college-educated—it’s only a mid-20th century, and later, phenomenon that journalists actually went to college—they were just good writers, smart people, and had the street savvy. I always said that a good journalist who covers a community doesn’t have to take a poll: He knows how the community’s going to react no matter what happens—because he knows the community. He knows the people in it.
Yeah, so who’s attracted to the business? Well, a lot of people who think that journalism is a way to promote a cause. I tell people, “If you’ve got a cause, go to work for the cause; don’t go to work in the newspaper business.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I have a question for you: I am a right-to-life activist since 1979
and I would like to know why, in my local paper, we can’t even publish a picture of a baby who is not aborted, but just a baby. They will not—we cannot get the truth out about this issue. It’s been kept from the American public since 1973. I’d like to know your opinion on that.
BENEDETTO: Well, again, when we’re talking about the people who get into the news business, for some reason that I haven’t really figured out, the right-to-life issue—or, the abortion issue, the abortion issue, I shouldn’t say “right-to-life issue”—the abortion issue has become a defining issue for a lot of young women who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, really defining, and a lot of those women are in news-editing positions today calling the shots. So, therefore, you’ve got to get past them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Mm-hmm. Yeah, well, that’s very difficult. I mean, we would be further along than we are if people would know the truth on that issue.
ARONOFF: Richard, what’s the main difference between the coverage of this year’s Obama campaign, versus four years ago?
BENEDETTO: The biggest? You go back to four years ago, it was an open seat. You didn’t have an incumbent President. So you didn’t have to hold somebody responsible; the candidates could just say what they wanted to say, and they don’t have any consequences until after they take office. But when you have an incumbent President, what the President is saying has consequences. I know that: The last campaign I covered was 2004, the Bush/John Kerry campaign, and we were on Bush’s back all the time, you know, and he never ran—the other thing to George Bush’s credit is, he never ran from the press. He never ran from the press. He didn’t hold a lot of open press conferences, but he would take questions on a daily basis. You would see him in a photo opportunity, or you would see him coming in or out of the Oval Office, and you’d shout a question, and if it was to something going on that day that was big, that the President had to answer, he would answer. So you would always have the President’s words on whatever was going on. You never had somebody else talking for him.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Is part of what’s going on with Obama not taking questions that, somehow, it was, early on, spotted that he doesn’t handle questions well, or, kind of, the impromptu situation isn’t his? He’s a teleprompter guy—
BENEDETTO: But it goes beyond that. Yeah, sure, you can screw up easily that way if you’re not that good at it, and he’s not that great at it; he’s all right, but he’s not great at it. But the thing is, it messes up your message. When somebody’s asking questions, it messes up your message, because you want to give a certain message, and somebody asks you a question off the wall.
One of the reasons why he stopped holding press conferences is, he got in trouble in one early on. He went out and held a big press conference on health care. He was pushing for the health care bill, he has this big press conference on health care. It was prime time—Oval Office, East Room in the White House, prime time, and what does he do? He gets a question at the very end. He calls on Lynn Sweet at the Chicago Sun-Times—and he knows Lynn because he’s from Chicago, and so he says, “I’ll give the Chicago reporter a question”—well, Lynn Sweet asked him a question that has nothing to do with health care: It had to do with that incident in Cambridge where Professor [Henry Louis Gates, Jr.] was arrested for trying to enter his own home. And what does Obama say? He says, “Well, I don’t have all the facts, but the police acted stupidly. That was the story. Health care went and died on that day. The next day, everything was what the President said about that. He never made that mistake again, because you just don’t know what you’re going to have to get in those press conferences. So he went something like nine months without a press conference after that one.
ARONOFF: So will you make a prediction on the election?
BENEDETTO: I can’t make any predictions. The polling shows that it’s that the President is pulling slightly ahead but I see that, with all the negative press that Romney’s got, he’s still hanging in there. There’s no precipitous slide that you can see, anywhere, and I think that, with the debates coming on, three debates, they’re gonna be pivotal—as they mostly always are.