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Obama Turns to Nontraditional Media

Jen Psaki

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA is showing why his PR strategy of bypassing the mainstream media is effective and smart. It’s not pleasant for the White House press corps or other traditional journalists to acknowledge it, but the president’s focus on getting out his message through nontraditional media is working well, as least from his point of view.

The latest example of Obama’s detour around the mainstream media was his news-making interview, released Monday, with comedian Marc Maron on the podcast “WTF.” Obama said a white gunman’s killing of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week showed the depth of racism that still exists in the United States.

“Racism, we are not cured of it,” the president said in the interview conducted in Maron’s Los Angeles garage. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Obama also made news by discussing his growing sense of limits on what he can do as president when he told Maron, regarding gun control, “Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA [National Rifle Association] on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress and I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves, ‘This is not normal, this is something that we can change, and we’re going to change it.’ And if you don’t have that kind of public and voter pressure, then it’s not going to change from the inside. … It turns out that the trajectory of progress always happens in fits and starts.”

Obama added: “Yes, it’s like middle management. Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements and to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south, so that 10 years from now suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were, but at the moment … people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn. … You just can’t turn 50 degrees. And it’s not just because of corporate lobbyists. It isn’t just because of big money. It’s because societies don’t turn 50 degrees. Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees.”

A White House spokesman told reporters that Obama went on the Maron podcast “to take some time away from the sort of daily back-and-forth of what’s in the news on any particular day and really offer listeners the opportunity to have more insight into how he makes decisions, what his day-to-day lifestyle is like, what he’s thinking about in terms of his family, his past, his future – a lot of those sort of personal reflections.”

Obama still talks to the mainstream media, which he did at the White House this week in addressing the need for gun control. But he rarely makes much news or gives many insights during such sessions, as he does in the nontraditional formats where he seems to feel more comfortable and tends to be more expansive. He also believes that the mainstream media are eager to play “gotcha” and embarrass him but he can have a more interesting conversation with nontraditional interviewers, his advisers say.

The Maron interview was the latest in a long series of such nontraditional venues to which Obama seems drawn. They have included interviews with YouTube personalities such as GloZell, Bethany Mota and Hank Green, an online sit-down with comedian Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns,” several chats with late-night television talk show hosts, and appearances on daytime TV.

Some critics say such appearances lower the stature of the presidency. But Obama advisers say times have changed. They argue that today’s society is fragmented along many lines and a president needs to go where the voters are. This means appearing in nontraditional venues. Future presidents will surely find themselves emulating Obama by doing the same thing.

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