In speech admonishing media, Obama hands reporters a challenge

The president emphasized the importance of holding presidential candidates – and journalists – to a higher standard.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
President Obama delivers the keynote address at the awards dinner for Syracuse University's Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., Monday.

Global leaders constantly ask "What is happening in America?" about the 2016 presidential campaign, President Obama told journalists at an awards dinner Monday evening.

"It's not because around the world people have not seen crazy politics," he said, lamenting the campaign's frequent superficiality and hateful rhetoric. "It is that they understand America is the place where you can't afford completely crazy politics."

But the media needs to hold itself to a higher standard to help reverse the damage, he said, delivering a keynote address at Syracuse University's Robin Turner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. His comments make Mr. Obama the latest critic of many publications' urge to go after high-profit, quick-turnaround soundbites and poll publishing rather than in-depth, issue-based coverage, an ongoing shift that many fear has reached new lows in the current campaign.

In recent weeks, several media publications have turned the lens on themselves and acknowledged that coverage of presidential candidates has fallen short of the standard expected of the Fourth Estate. In his speech, the president challenged journalists to take that self-reflection to heart and change the way it covers the race going forward.

"A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It's to probe and to question and to dig deeper and to demand more," Obama told the audience, contrasting today's coverage with the prize's namesake, the first female national political correspondent for The New York Times, who covered five presidential races for the paper. This year's recipient is Alec MacGillis, a ProPublica reporter who covers campaign finance and lobbying.

Free coverage for candidates needs to come with "serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they cannot keep," he added.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has mastered the art of dominating news at practically no cost, relying on personal attacks, controversy, and vague but bombastic statements to draw attention. The result: just $10 million in TV ad spending has generated $1.9 billion in coverage for him, according to media-tracking firm mediaQuant. In comparison, Hillary Clinton spent about $28 million and earned about $746 million in coverage, the second-highest amount.

The cycle of constantly-generated "controversy," with each remark or tweet generating multiple stories, has helped focus attention on just front-runners, some candidates and many observers have complained, making it less likely that voters get to know the full lineup's policies.

"The amount of coverage they give to Trump compared to any other candidate is astronomical" and violates basic journalistic principles, Kevin Smith, the former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and one of its ethics committee members, told The Christian Science Monitor last week. "A lot of things that have happened during this election campaign coverage [are] going to find their way into ethics textbooks for years to come."

In the struggle to attract readers or viewers, particularly in an age of shortened attention spans, the lure of sound bite reporting is hard to resist. CNN, for instance, is enjoying "crazy" rating numbers, President Jeff Zucker told The New York Times, making 40 times the usual amount for ads on debate nights, for example.

But many broadcasters' profits are coming at the cost of accountability: letting candidates interview by phone, for example, rather than appear in person without their aides, or riding out the media circus of a personal attack, rather than turning attention back to candidates' policies.

"When our elected officials and our political campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn't matter what's true and what's not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations," Obama said at the Toner Prize dinner.

He pointed to the importance of a joint news conference with Cuban president Raúl Castro in Havana last week, where Mr. Castro stumbled through the unfamiliar ritual of answering reporters' questions live, particularly about political prisoners.

"I can't think of a better example of why a free press is so vital to freedom," Obama said Monday.

This report includes material from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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