Straight Talk
BRYN WEESE - Obama and Harper share playbook to manage message

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama

Credits: REUTERS


WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is a smooth-talking, big-government international star.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a rigid, small-government policy wonk.

They both like music and sports, but beyond that it's hard to see many similarities. Except, that is, for their media strategies which are eerily similar and draw nearly identical ire from the reporters who cover them.

The latest flare-up between Obama and the White House Correspondents Association was a golf game with Tiger Woods last weekend. There was no pool reporter. There wasn't even a picture. And reporters were only told about it after the game was over.

He's allowed down time, obviously, but the press corps says the golf game is symbolic of a larger problem: The president is never accessible to the media. It's a complaint the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa has levelled at Harper, too.

"There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency," Ed Henry, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a recent statement, adding the media is "extremely frustrated" with the lack of access.

But Obama's people are pushing back. They say he's done lots of (35) Q-and-As over the last four years, and hundreds of sit-down interviews with smaller papers and media outlets around the country. Harper, too, prefers lengthy one-on-one chats. Both leaders excel at them.

"I doubt that there's ever been a White House press corps that's ever been wholly satisfied with the level of access that they've been afforded," said Obama spokesman Jay Carney, a one-time White House correspondent himself, adding he's "sympathetic" to the media's concerns.

The frustration with Obama is nothing new.

Two years ago, when Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the only proof came from a White House photographer.

Similarly, Harper took flak in 2009 when reporters were shut out of a seal-eating photo op in Iqaluit. The only proof his cabinet chowed down was from his staff photographer, too.

Beyond their adept use of flattering staff photographs, both also use mock interviews to feign access -- Harper with Conservative Senate and former broadcaster Mike Duffy, and Obama with his own White House TV -- and both routinely avoid press conferences with the reporters who cover them daily.

Consider this: Harper was harangued during the recent election by reporters -- who shouted their way through the five week campaign -- for only answering five questions a day. But last summer, during his own -- albeit much longer -- election, Obama went more than 100 days without a Q-and-A with the reporters embedded with his campaign.

(His record of not answering White House correspondents' questions is reportedly 309 days between June 2009 and May 2010.)

And then there's the so-called Friday document dump, which both have taken to new heights to avoid or at least minimize negative coverage.

Last fall, Harper's office kept reporters waiting until midnight to receive word the government had rejected a $6-billion foreign takeover of a Canadian energy company.

South of the border two years ago, the White House released not one but three different document dumps on the same Friday relating to the Solyndra solar company bankruptcy.

"What you guys call a document dump, we call transparency," White House spokesman Josh Earnest once told reporters when they complained about the obvious and inconvenient timing.

With Obama entering a second and final term, reporters shouldn't hold their breath waiting for relations to improve. They need only look to Stephen Harper to see how successful politicians can be without bending over backwards to please reporters.

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