How Much Is Obama Controlling the Message on MSNBC?

The Atlantic Wire

As the Obama administration continues to draw the ire of the Washington media for limiting exposure to the White House, the most White House-friendly network up and hired yet another former White House message man, David Axelrod. And that may all be part of the plan.

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In the wake of, well, a golf game with Tiger Woods, Politico's Mike Allen and Jim Vandehai launched a long, accusatory missive last night about how the Obama administration never talks to reporters the way presidents used to. The "puppet master" president and his advisers like Dan Pfeiffer, Politico and on-the-record members of the White House press corps complain, now control their messaging through controlled content and social-media delivery, such as the White House's Flickr page. The White House press pool never gets to ask the hard questions like they used to, apparently, because Obama so rarely makes himself available to reporters — not because the White House Press Corps so rarely asks hard questions.

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Is the Beltway press making a mountain out of a molehill here? Mostly, yes. But there are some credible arguments to be made here. The President himself doesn't speak to the White House press corps as often as he used to — and last night's off-the-record chat on Air Force One isn't going to help that. A press conference in November was the first time he took questions from them in over eight months, and while there have been more questions since, there have also been four years' worth of planted stories and 60 Minutes softballs. 

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And while the news funneling out of the White House might be heavy on spin, the spin zone is increasingly populated by guys who used to work in the White House. The administration couldn't control the timing of the announcement, on the same morning that the Politico report was boiling over, that David Axelrod will join NBC and MSNBC as a "senior political analyst." Axelrod, a longtime Obama advisor and MSNBC favorite, officially left his Senior Advisor job at the White House in 2011 to work on the 2012 campaign, but he's been a vocal supporter of his old boss from the political pasture every since. He's supported the President, on television or on Twitter, on guns, on immigration reform promises, and on that whole skeet-shooting controversy that's at the center of how the Obama administration beats off-message messages with its own message. (Flickr photo + Axelrod tweet = end of controversy, goes the thinking.) Axelrod he did say that the immigration bill leak was a dumb idea — on MSNBC, no less!

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Only a few weeks ago, Robert Gibbs also joined MSNBC as a contributor — he, too, is a longtime MSNBC favorite, from his days as Obama's White House Press Secretary to his own efforts as an official campaign advisor. But he's actually made fewer headlines for defending the President than Axelrod has since leaving the inner circle. Gibbs defended this weekend's immigration leak as something outside of the White House's control. Or, to put it plainly, saying it wasn't intentional. But if one were to put on a tinfoil hat for a moment, that could be chalked up to the terrible response it got from just about everyone. Gibbs did deviate from the message slightly when he said Chuck Hagel seemed "unimpressive and unprepared" during his Defense Secretary confirmation hearing, but that was pretty obvious, and in the same breath he criticized the validity of the questions Hagel was asked by Republicans.

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Look: Gibbs and Axelrod could probably use the paycheck — MSNBC has been dishing them out to left-leaning talking heads for years, and CNN made an artform out of hiring the recently "retired" White House advisor and putting him behind a podium after the first and second terms of Bill Clinton. And what's cable news these days without a talking head for our elected officials? You can't go on a Sunday talk show these days without seeing the opposite of Gibbs and Axelrod — David Plouffe, who went from the campaign to inside the White House, is still on TV pushing the administration's method all the time. 

For its part, MSNBC certainly knows its audience, though they would never admit it. And the administration certainly knows its message, its people, its social media, and its fading need for a White House press corps when it has guys like Axe and Gibbs to unofficially lean the right way on a left-leaning network. It's like what former press secretary Ben LaBolt said on Twitter in response to the Politico rant — the White House is "engaging Americans directly in the conversation." Their conversation.

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