- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Even though President Obama may have lost his electoral magic with voters as recent polls show, he still understands how to play many members of the media, particularly when he is going to war.

Just before he announced his plans to expand the military bombing campaign into Syria against the Islamic State this week, Mr. Obama called in more than a dozen of the top opinion writers in the U.S. media.

The journalists agreed that the White House session would be off the record, which meant the participants could not use a single word spoken by the president, his chief of staff or his national security adviser.

Such shenanigans have been used for years in Washington, but this one bears a closer look. The participants included three New York Times columnists and an editorial writer, three people from The Washington Post, two from The New Yorker, two from The Atlantic, and one each from the New Republic and The Daily Beast. The dean of the Columbia School of Journalism even got an invite.

Credit goes the Huffington Post, which was not at the meeting, for sussing out who accepted the invitations to the hush-hush event.*

So how does Mr. Obama convince the American public that his anti-war stance — one of the important reasons he won the presidency — is no longer a viable option? It seems you have the president and his top people spin the story as much as possible.

Let’s take a look at what two of the invitees wrote.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times chimed in this week that he is pleased Mr. Obama launched the Syrian airstrikes and understood the president’s quandary. “Nurturing this soul-searching is a vital — and smart — part of the Obama strategy,” he said.

Yes, the audacity of soul-searching apparently has become a necessary part of leading a nation into a war. Moreover, the columnist endorsed the president’s analysis that the boots on the ground should be Arabs, Kurds, Turks and other Muslims with different types of governments spread around the world and all kinds of military equipment and command structures. It is worth noting, for example, that the Kurds and the Turks have been fighting each other for decades.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, another White House guest, also toed the line. “The symbolism Tuesday was appropriate for a nation at war: A somber president in a plain blue suit describing military strikes in Syria the night before, an American flag fixed in his lapel while a Marine Corps helicopter waited behind him,” he wrote. I guess Mr. Ignatius missed the picture of the president saluting a Marine while holding a cafe latte.

The Washington Post columnist reported that the president and his advisers have a five-step program: direct military action without involvement of U.S. soldiers except for training; counterterrorism operations against foreign fighters; disruption of financing; humanitarian assistance; and media activities to “delegitimize” the extremists. I wonder whom Mr. Obama will nominate to become the anti-Islamic State media representative.

At least Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker kept his standards a lot higher after the White House briefing. In an excellent story, Mr. Filkins underlined one of the key problems Mr. Obama faces by not ruling out U.S. ground troops. As his article noted, “The White House wants the Kurds to help save Iraq from ISIS. The Kurds may be more interested in breaking away.”

I tell my students never to go off the record, mainly based on my experiences when I have accepted such ground rules. The problem is you can rarely get that information back on the record. The Society of Professional Journalists’ new code of ethics puts it nicely: “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.” I couldn’t agree more.

*CORRECTION — The original version of this column incorrectly said that a Huffington Post reporter was at the off-the-record briefing, and failed to credit the website for uncovering the guest list. We regret the errors.

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @charper51.

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