Margaret Sullivan: “Everybody’s a media critic these days—and Barack Obama is an astute one. But he’s got a bit of a credibility problem.”

From a Margaret Sulllivan media column in the Washington Post headlined “What Obama gets right—and very wrong—about the media”:

Everybody’s a media critic these days—and Barack Obama is an astute one. But for those who remember certain aspects of his presidency, he’s got a bit of a credibility problem.

He’s certainly right when he frets that America is being torn apart by its dysfunctional media system, as he explained in an interview with the Atlantic to promote his new memoir. “I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story,” he said.

“We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us.”

And in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, he told Scott Pelley that local journalism may be the key. It’s “where we have to start, in terms of rebuilding the social trust we need for democracy to work.”. . .

Obama takes a stab at offering solutions, telling Pelley a little vaguely that “we have to work at the local level” and “find ways to . . . bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction.”

But before we herald the former president as some sort of media visionary, let’s cast our minds back to his own administration’s record with the press.

Here’s how I’d sum it up: not great.

When Obama entered office, he promised the most transparent administration in American history. He did not deliver. . . .

Instead, he largely engaged in what I called Transparency Lite. He did tons of interviews, but many of them involved celebrity conversationalists who pitched softball questions. During a visit to Vietnam, he chatted with Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trotting TV chef. . . .

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The Obama administration repeatedly used an obscure century-old federal statute — the Espionage Act — to pursue government sources who provided information to journalists. His Justice Department’s war on leakers was, in the words of former Post editor Len Downie, “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”. . .

I’m glad that Obama sees the mess we’re in now.

And I heartily agree with his emphasis on local journalism and the way rampant misinformation is damaging our democracy.

But I haven’t forgotten what happened when he was in charge.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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