Matt Drudge obviously is not happy. "ABC TURNS PROGRAMMING OVER TO OBAMA; NEWS TO BE ANCHORED FROM INSIDE WHITE HOUSE," his headline screams.
I don't blame ABC for agreeing to spend a day next week broadcasting from the White House. You tell me which network would turn down an opportunity to anchor its news and prime-time special from the home of the most popular guy in the world.
Lesley Stahl tells a great story of doing a critical report on President Ronald Reagan's environmental record in connection with his visit to some spectacular backdrop. She expected the White House folks to be furious, but instead they thanked her for the great shots.
Few of the viewers listened to Stahl; they were mesmerized by the pictures. The White House people knew this because they watched test audiences. Reagan, the beautiful backdrop: It was a home run.
So, I predict, will be ABC's night at the White House - even though I trust the network news division to retain appropriate control of the content, and anchors Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer to ask difficult and well-researched questions, just as they would in any other venue or studio. I have no doubt that ABC will do as well as or better than any news organization in retaining its journalistic integrity while scoring a huge ratings blowout - which, we shouldn't forget, is the dog, not the tail.
But it's what people see that worries me, and what people are saying about it that should ultimately trouble defenders of a free press. What they'll see is a joint production of the Obama White House and a group of supposedly independent journalists. They'll see the media not covering the White House, but dressing it; not reviewing the show, but hosting it.
What is said matters less than what is seen. People watch TV. People don't say, "I heard you on TV." They say, "I saw you." They don't say, "You sounded good." They say, "You looked great." Or, on days that aren't so good, "You look younger in person."
As we ask questions about the mistakes of the Iraq invasion, we should consider the inclusion of journalists as part of units. Reporters of great courage risked their lives to ride side by side with soldiers trained for such action and provide dramatic coverage of the American effort. The problem is that they truly became part of those units - embedded in the war, not covering it from the outside.
The First Amendment protects the press from government restraint. That assumes the press is on the outside looking in, in need of protection from being shooed away too far or too harshly.
One of the first things you learn when you move to Washington is that administrations come and go, but the media stay forever, and they run the town. They are, most of them will be the first to tell you, too powerful, and it affects reporting in all kinds of insidious ways, many of which were revealed in the trial of Scooter Libby.
The great danger these days - and this was also true in the post-9/11 days of the Bush administration - is not just that the only critical coverage comes from the ideologues, who are dismissed as that, but that the public understandably comes to forget why it is we put up with all the excesses of a free press.