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February 13, 2014

JEFFREY McCALL: The president doesn't control the news agenda

Press will drop 'scandals' after all information gets out.

The president of the United States is often character-ized as the most powerful person in the world. In spite of the enor-mous power held by the leader of the free world, however, there remains one thing the president can’t do: control the news agenda.

The constitutional framers created a free press to make sure the government powers-that-be couldn’t orchestrate the flow of information to the citizenry. Thus, if Fox News wants to do saturation coverage of Benghazi or IRS targeting, it is free to do so. If The New York Times wants to beat up Chris Christie over bridgegate, it surely can. And if ABC’s “Good Morning America” wants to waste its news agenda with updates about “The Bachelor,” it can do that, too. The media’s news agenda might be politically charged, misguided, too soft or even irrelevant, but it’s still the press’ prerogative to decide.

President Obama surely knows this, but he is apparently uncomfortable with the arrangement. The president chafed during his recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly when O’Reilly asked about political overtones in the administration’s initial Benghazi explanations, “They believe it because folks like you are telling them that.” After questions about IRS targeting, President Obama scolded O’Reilly, “These kinds of things keep on surfacing in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”

A president is not a helpless victim of the media when it comes to what issues get on the news agenda. A president has plenty of tools to get his messages out, push priorities and shape public discourse. A president can give an oration whenever he wants on whatever topic. The White House press office feeds reporters every day and chastises reporters who don’t get in line. Every White House has cabinet members and operatives to shill the president’s talking points.

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