President Obama’s disdain for new media has become so consistent that it is hard to dismiss as mere posturing. This is all the more ironic because Obama’s political movement supposedly mastered the new art of communication. During the 2008 campaign, the Obamistas let the world know they were cool by, among other things, speaking digital as a first language.
By contrast, since taking office, Obama has sounded downright nostalgic about the old newspaper era, all the while warning that the new communication revolution is producing more information than people can digest.
President Obama repeated this criticism Sunday in his commencement address at Hampton University:
You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations . . . information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.
This echoed what he told CBS News’s Bob Schieffer in an interview on September 20:
There’s one last point I gotta make, Bob, and that is that I do think part of what’s different today is the 24-hour news cycle and cable TV and blogs and all this. They focus on the most extreme elements in both sides. They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now. And so the easiest way to get 15 minutes of fame is to be rude to somebody. In that environment, I think it makes it more difficult to solve the problems the American people sent us here to solve.
And when Obama nominated his solicitor general, Elena Kagan, to the Supreme Court, Kagan did not speak to the media, new or old — though the White House released an “interview” with her on its official website.
Confused? You shouldn’t be. At least two phenomena are at work.
One, the simpler one, is that now that he has to govern, President Obama would just as soon dispense with all those niggling critics carping about his policies. It was better in the days when three liberals — say Cronkite, Reasoner, and Brinkley — had a monopoly over deciding what the news was every day, and synthesized it every night on TV. Then they let the New York Times echo those views the next morning. Those were the days.
There’s nothing new here. Newspapers, in decline today, came of age as political tools in London more than 300 years ago, in an era when Tories battled Whigs over such emotional issues as the right of Catholics to serve in government or ascend to the throne. In the 1680s, Charles II — backed by the Tories — embraced the new medium. Then, after a few electoral victories, he shut down the newspapers.
Wrote the historian Tim Harris of that era:
What we see, in other words, is a government which realized that it had been unable to contain the public sphere, which recognized that it temporarily needed to engage with it, and which, after having successfully done so, then sought to contain it once again.
In similar fashion, it’s beginning to dawn on this White House that the Internet is not its friend and, in fact, that the web stands for the opposite of what has emerged as the Obama administration’s animating spirit. The Internet is centrifugal, dispersing power outward; the Obama administration is centripetal, concentrating power at the center. Google is moved hither and thither through choices made by millions; Wikipedia relies upon the wisdom of crowds. In the blogosphere, everyone can have an opinion, and every opinion has a chance to be considered — and perhaps to prevail — in the online marketplace of ideas.
The Obama administration, conversely, prides itself on offering top-down governance by the best and the brightest — not realizing that, as most Americans see it, that type of thinking creates a self-selected elite prone to hubris and atrocious error. In a mere 15 months, the Obama administration has concentrated in Washington control over important parts of industries as important and diverse as automobiles, banking, and health care. It wants to do the same with energy.
Given these two opposing forces — the centripetal, governing one and the centrifugal, technological one — a collision was inevitable. It has happened so early in Obama’s first term because his administration has been in such a rush. Its single-minded will to bring all this power to Washington quickly cannot countenance debate and criticism, which are the mother’s milk of the Internet.
What the Obama administration will do about all this is another question. The FCC recently announced that it will ignore its own previous determination — and a court ruling — and proceed to regulate broadband communications. President Obama may be no Charles II, but those who truly love freedom of expression should remain vigilant.
Follow Mike Gonzalez on Twitter: @Gundisalvus