It’s hard to pinpoint why Bill Clinton’s June 3, 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show was such a seminal moment in the history of presidential interviews. After all, he wasn’t the first presidential candidate to agree to an interview on a late night show. In 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy appeared on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, and in 1975 soon-to-be presidential candidate Ronald Reagan sat down for an interview on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Yet Clinton’s decision to speak to and later play the saxophone for Hall’s audience marked the beginning of something new. Perhaps it was the generational hand-wringing, led most prominently by the traditional media stalwarts who, even then, felt vaguely threatened by the ease with which they had been bypassed completely. “In the long run, there is no substitute for discussing the tough issues they’re going to have to handle as President,” Tim Russert told the New York Times at the time. “If people really thought you could get elected by playing the saxophone, there would be a lot more musicians running for President.”
That hand-wringing would only increase as this type of presidential interview became more commonplace. Most interesting to me is how White House outreach has mirrored the larger unbundling of the media. It used to be that a small handful of networks dominated the television airwaves, thereby necessitating that any messaging travel through a paucity of channels, but the rise of the cable bundle through the 80s and 90s set the stage for then-presidential candidate John Kerry’s 2004 appearance on the Daily Show, a program on a cable network that existed at the very end of the dial. “A lot of television viewers — more, quite frankly, than I’m comfortable with — get their news from the Comedy Channel on a program called The Daily Show,” complained Nightline anchor Ted Koppel at the time.
Before we flash forward to the rise of social media and the current presidency, I want to take a few steps back to the year 2000, when the Clinton White House shot a humorous video entitled “Final Days.” Though it was created for and first appeared during the White House Correspondents Dinner, the video was among the very first White House-produced videos to gain traction online. Even more interesting, I think, is how well it captures the media landscape Barack Obama would later confront head-on using new media tools. A lameduck Clinton, with only eight months in office left, finds he’s already entered an era of obsolescence. He lectures from a podium, only for the camera to zoom out and show the press room is entirely abandoned, save for Helen Thomas. Tim Russert passes on interviewing Clinton for Meet the Press. The White House Press Corps snickered while watching the video during their dinner, but it represented the long-standing criticism that their coverage existed as nothing but blood-sport, and they lacked interest in anything outside the latest horse race politics then gripping the nation.
If June 3, 1992 represented one turning point, then January 30, 2012 epitomized the next. That was when President Obama and the White House collaborated with Google for a live Google Hangout with five pre-selected participants. Though it could easily have succumbed to the inauthenticity of a manufactured, townhall discussion — the lame ones you see as presidential candidates tour the country — I was struck by the genuine substance of the event. These were real Americans from diverse backgrounds, many of them still reeling from the Great Recession and unafraid of putting Obama’s feet to the fire.
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Though Obama’s team had already received plenty of praise for its digital outreach efforts up until that point, this Google Hangout unleashed a new era of diversified messaging catering to the fragmented media landscape that has made mass-outreach near impossible. “After the midterm elections, the President instructed us to double down our efforts, to try to get more innovative and more aggressive,” Daniel Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior advisor, told Steven Levy recently. This was around the time when you saw the president begin appearing for Reddit AMAs and in online-only outlets. If Clinton’s Arsenio Hall appearance was controversial, imagine the outcry when Obama sat down with Zach Galifianakis for Between Two Ferns. “The President shouldn’t be wasting time on a parody interview,” tweeted Republican Congressman Randy Weber. “He should be focusing on the current state of affairs across the globe.”
But, as Pfeiffer explained in his interview, Obama had no choice. “This disaggregation of the media is very challenging for a White House,” he explained. “You can no longer just have a nationally televised address and speak to 150 million people. So you have to work 15, 20, 30 times harder than previous presidents to have the same impact.”
Then came Obama’s January sit-down with three YouTube celebrities, one of whom was a 50-something comedian who had once taken a bath in Froot Loops. If the media had shown any kind of restraint in the past, now it was open season.
In a postmortem written for Medium, Hank Green, one of the aforementioned YouTube stars, pinpointed the genuine fear that stemmed from many of these criticisms:
Legacy media isn’t mocking us because we aren’t a legitimate source of information; they’re mocking us because they’re terrified. Their legitimacy came from the fact that they have access to distribution channels and that they get to be in the White House press pool because of some long-ago established procedures that assumed they would use that power in the public interest. In reality, those things are becoming less and less important and less and less true. Distribution is free to anyone with a cell phone and the legitimacy of cable news sounds to me like an oxymoron. The median-aged CNN viewer is 60. For Fox, it’s 68.
For every Fox News host openly criticizing Obama for shooting a selfie for BuzzFeed or releasing a House of Cards-style video on April Fools, there’s a group of Fox News executives huddled in a conference room reviewing Nielsen charts and strategizing how they can recapture Millennial viewers. The incongruity of these two scenarios shows they’re no closer to answering that question than they were when Obama took office.
The debate over whether these cable stalwarts will ever answer this question is now moot, because the White House has already moved on from the traditional media structures to which it formerly adhered and entered a fray from which it will never return. The question now is whether the traditional media follows him and future presidents into that fray or if they stand on the outside, forever looking in. Those who consider themselves “above” such shenanigans shouldn’t be surprised as they’re given less and less access, especially as their core audience begins to die off. The white men in tailored suits have had their moment. Bring on the green lipstick and Froot Loops.
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