By: William B. Ketter
The White House press secretary who navigated President Bill Clinton through the shoals of his impeachment voyage has some sagacious media advice for President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office Jan. 20.
?Don?t try to use the press,? said Joe Lockhart. ?Understand the value of the press to informing the public.?
In other words, don?t manipulate, mislead and misguide the press or live to regret the consequences of suspicious, even hostile journalism that can destroy the good will new presidents enjoy with the American public.
Lockhart?s smart counsel was delivered this week at the annual Media Law Resource Center dinner in New York City. He participated in a discussion of ?The Presidency and the Press? with historian Michael Beschloss and David Gergen, the Harvard government professor who served as President Ronald Reagan?s director of communications.
Martha Raddatz, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, moderated the forum and skeptically questioned if Obama would be different than past presidents who started out with good intentions but ended up cloaking their administrations in secrecy.
?His access on the campaign trail was well orchestrated,? she said. ?Will that approach carry over to the White House??
To a person, the panelists urged Obama to talk candidly with the press and the public about the enormous challenges he faces, and what he intends to do about trying to solve them. Beschloss, a presidential historian, pointed to Franklin D. Roosevelt as an exemplar.
?Obama knows his way around the English language,? said Beschloss. ?He can talk to us like adults? the way Roosevelt did in his fireside chats and frequent meetings with the White House press corps during the dark days of the Depression and World War II.
Gergen urged Obama to conduct weekly press conferences and be ?available at least once a month on a larger basis? — such as a televised address to the nation. There?s a big difference, he said, between a campaign message and connecting with the public once you take office.
?You need to be more transparent, much more open when you?re governing,? said Gergen, who should know. He not only served as Reagan?s communications chief but also was an advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Clinton.
Unlike those presidencies, however, Obama is moving into the Oval Office at a time when the Internet has become an increasing source of information, much of it unbranded and unverified and thus suspect.
Yet the panelists had no doubt the new president will use the Internet to communicate his story, with Lockhart pointing out Obama has collected more than 10 million email addresses from his impressive grassroots campaign. He also noted that Obama is savvy about the latest electronic devices.
?This is the first president addicted to a Blackberry,? said Lockhart. ?That?s going to be a hard habit to break.?
Despite the growing use of instant, direct electronic communication, the panelists warned Obama against thoughts of bypassing the mainstream media in getting his message to the American people.
?The mainstream press is important to the process because it holds the government accountable under our system of democracy,? said Gergen. ?No matter what the new media brings ? we are better protected as citizens if there is an aggressive mainstream press,? meaning newspapers.
Sound thinking in an era when Bruce Springsteen, an avid Obama supporter, finds his lament ?57 Channels and Nothin? On? oddly out-of-date with 500-plus channels available on cable and satellite.