On Jan. 20, change will come to Washington. To part of it, anyway. Barack Obama will take office, but another Washington fixture, the press that covered George W. Bush, will still be there: a whole roster of newly minted network White House correspondents, yes, but the same apparatus behind them.
Come Jan. 21 and beyond after nearly three months of offering the President-elect free advice and producing stories about his struggles to choose a puppy and keep his BlackBerry the press will need to cover the fact, not the idea, of President Obama. As long as we're asking what he might do differently, it's only fair to ask the same of the media that cover him. Has the press learned anything from the past eight years? And if so, will those lessons stay learned? (See pictures of Obama's college years.)
We have to go back, as with so much concerning Bush, to Sept. 11, 2001. After 9/11 the press failed in some big ways. Not everywhere, not everyone and not always. But there was too credulous reporting and cheerleading from the erroneous WMD speculation to the cable-news screens festooned with American flags to the anemic press conference before the Iraq war in which Bush fielded hardballs like "How is your faith guiding you?"
It wasn't just bias, fear or jingoism at work. The 9/11 attacks brought with them an economic squeeze, which meant greater pressure not to alienate viewers or advertisers by going against the flow. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer warned people to "watch what they say," Bill Maher lost his job on Politically Incorrect (but later moved to HBO) after calling American air strikes cowardly, and CNN issued memos to "balance" reports of civilian casualties with references to the deaths on 9/11.
In the popular narrative (popular among the press, anyway), the media found a tough, skeptical voice after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's fairer to say, though, that the public faced with objective evidence of government failure gave the media permission to find that voice. MSNBC, which fired liberal Phil Donahue in 2003 after a network report called him a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" now employs Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann.
The economic crisis could be the Obama Administration's 9/11. You have a new President whom Americans want to succeed no one wanted to be killed by terrorists then, and no one wants a depression now. You have a leader with sky-high approval ratings (which the media are monetizing with all those commemorative issues and Inaugural Ball broadcasts). You have a lot of unknowables: then, about the capabilities of al-Qaeda, now, about how you can stimulate your way out of recession.
Finally, you have media businesses laying off workers or going under in an even worse economy brought on by the very crisis at the top of the news--which means fewer ad dollars and, potentially, peril for anyone who loses market share by seeming out of step with the times. It's easier to be bold when your job is secure.
The Obama team, meanwhile, seems to have learned from Bush about dealing with the press. During the campaign, Obama, like Bush, exercised tight message control, limited press availability and disregarded old-media courtship rituals. Incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly told the New York Times Magazine that Obama never sat down with the Washington Post editorial board. "You could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo [Iowa] and understand that people aren't reading the Washington Post."
Unlike the Bushies, the Obama folks bypass the press with a smile, not a sneer. But the notion that a new Administration has to "feed the beast" in the pressroom may no longer be true. Politically, Bush didn't much suffer from writing off the "reality based" media. (Historically, maybe; hence his last-minute media barnstorming of late.)
Like Bush, Obama has ways of going around the press corps. Whereas Dick Cheney would call in to Rush Limbaugh, Obama posts weekly addresses on YouTube, and Gibbs answers questions via video on Change.gov This media strategy not only bypasses the "filter" (to replace it with the Administration's own filter), it also gives the audience a feeling of investment in the new Administration. Which makes you that much more of a buzz kill if you're the one second-guessing it.
None of which is to say the media need to pick fights with Obama just to prove their relevance. But they will have to work all the harder to cover the Obama Administration for what it is and not just what their audience wants to hear. For all the controversy over whether the press has a political bias, just as insidious is the bias in favor of being liked and keeping an audience. Amid all the change, this is one thing that stays the same.