Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama: Government without newspapers not an option

SPEAKING at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington DC on
Saturday 9 May, president Barack Obama said that "a government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media is not an option for the United States of America."
In what was mostly a speech packed with jokes and humorous anecdotes, Obama ended his discourse on a serious note about the state of journalism in the country, acknowledging that there were many good journalists who had recently found themselves out of a job.
Appearing before a mixed crowd of journalists, media chiefs, politicians and celebrities including actor Ashton Kutcher, who is one of social media tool Twitter's most high-profile users, Obama outlined the plight of journalism, with newspapers clearly at the heart of his speech. He insisted that the ultimate success of the industry is essential in ensuring the preservation of America's democracy, before referring to a quote from the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson: "If he had the choice between government with newspapers or newspapers without government, he'd choose the latter."
"When you are at your best, you help me be at my best. You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and following in the easy political games that people are so desperately weary of and that kind of reporting is worth preserving not just for your sake, but for the public's," Obama said. "This is the season of renewal and reinvention. That is what government must learn to do. That's what businesses must learn to do and that's what journalism is in the process of doing."
Before stepping down from the stage, Obama offered journalists his thanks and pledged to support the industry. His comments are timely, given that last week the US Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet convened at a hearing organised by Massachusetts senator John Kerry. The hearing entitled the Future of Journalism examined the plight of the newspaper industry, the knock-on effects of new media and what steps government - if any - should take to ensure its survival.
By the end of the hearing, whilst guest speakers helped to paint an accurate image of what newspapers were going through, what the role of government should be during this time remained elusive. There was no consensus on whether a government-lead bail-out would actually be enough to guarantee the long-term survival of the newspaper. Notably, those who were against the idea of government intervention, including the likes of Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, were confident that those newspapers which choose to embrace digital media and new advertising models, would not just endure, but indeed flourish.
President Obama's talk has, on the one hand, given the industry renewed hope of a possible government bail-out, as some news sites have been quick to suggest, yet this is in stark contrast to what press secretary Robert Gibbs told journalists at the start of May, when he categorically said there would be no such assistance on offer. Still, Obama's commitment to the journalism industry, in particular newspapers, will not come as a surprise to most people. Even before Obama became President and long before he was catapulted to the media spotlight, Obama often championed the notion that journalists were an essential component of the democratic process, and his thoughts on this and the power of media can be found in his book The Audacity of Hope.
Obama's presidential campaign also signalled in a new era of digital politics and since his inauguration in January, his administration has continued to embrace new media, exploiting the Internet and the various social networking tools to communicate and engage with a new breed of electorates. Whether Obama and his team decide to step in is by no means certain and there is no reason to believe that the government has suddenly changed its position from the previous week. With that said, it is unlikely that America's newspaper-loving President will stand by and do nothing. In any case, despite Obama's personal preference for print - and some say his administration's preference for unconventional media - Obama and his media-savvy team offer newspapers a well-placed and much-need ally.


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