In historic visit, Obama sidesteps Alaska press

In the wake of President Obama’s visit, Alaskans are still sorting out the significance of new climate initiatives, cultural recognition, and more. But there’s lingering frustration among one particularly vocal group, who found that all the president’s messages came from the same place: His staff.

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President Obama picked up a silver on the beach in Dillingham. Photo: Hannah Colton/KDLG.
President Obama picked up a silver on the beach in Dillingham. Photo: Hannah Colton/KDLG.

Obama was in Alaska for two-and-a-half days. In that time he made an important speech on the imminent threats of climate change, announced new programs on Arctic research and community relocation, and sped up the timeline for a new ice breaker. During that same stretch of time he did not take a single question from the press.

“There were no opportunities to ask questions, whatsoever,” said Hannah Colton, who covered the president’s visit to Dillingham for KDLG.

“There was not a single opportunity to ask the president questions,” KNOM News Director Matthew Smith said from Kotzebue.

“He did not take any questions,” APRN’s Liz Ruskin told News Director Lori Townsend during Obama’s trip to Exit Glacier near Seward. Asked why the press was on a separate boat from the president in a tour of Resurrection Bay, Ruskin replied, “I think that helps us take better pictures of him.”

The president’s message in Alaska was on the immediate effects of climate change across the state. That story was told visually. Each day of the visit there were poignant press photos of the President standing before a shrinking glacier, holding a glistening salmon, or inspecting fish racks.

“No one would be drying their fish on Kanakanak Beach, in the rain, in September,” Colton said. It was especially hard covering Wednesday’s rainy photo ops for radio, Colton added, because the press was kept too far away for microphones to reach.

Veteran print reporter Lisa Demer with the Alaska Dispatch News was bothered for different reasons during the Dillingham stop.

“I made my best pitch for an opportunity to get in one question. They said ‘that’s just not happening,'” Demer said. “It was terribly frustrating.”

In the last week, headlines and nightly news coverage of the president’s visit have stayed mostly positive. But on Twitter, over email lists, and in wry internal reports, journalists complained about a lack of legitimate opportunities to question the administration’s policies. And that was especially true for reporters inside of what’s called “the pool.”

“The pool gives you access, but it’s very much designed to keep it as limited and controlled as possible,” said KNOM’s Smith. Like most Alaska-based reporters contacted for this story, it was Smith’s first time covering such a high-level visit, and he was put off by the fleet of White House staffers who choreographed the movements and tempo of about 30 members of the press in Kotzebue–all the way down to chiding when someone in the pool asked after the name of a puppy in John Baker’s dog lot.

“Which was Feather, by the way,” said Smith, adding, “You’re not allowed to ask the president that.”

While it is fun, telegenic, and symbolically important to cover the president dancing with kids, or buying a bunch of cinnamon rolls, or getting spawned on by a fish, there are a lot of legitimate questions that went unanswered because they could not even be asked.

“There’s this gigantic oil rig drilling not far from here,” Smith said of Royal Dutch Shell’s exploratory efforts in the nearby Chukchi Sea, which started this summer after gaining final approval from the Obama Administration. “I couldn’t think of a better example of how bizarre and broken the system is: We’re in Kotzebue, Shell’s staging their stuff in Kotzebue, nobody said a word about Shell.”

That is not out of the ordinary for Obama, or for most presidents.

“I hate to disappoint you, but it is very, very normal,” said Professor Elizabeth Arnold of UAA, who covered four White House administrations, and does not think Alaskan reporters were uniquely mistreated: This is par for the presidential course.

“It’s depressing, I know,” Arnold said, “but presidents are very controlled by their handlers.”

Arnold explained that the reason media with experience in the pool don’t simply yell out questions or break past the pageantry is long-term access: The White House regularly sends information to journalists ahead of any public release in order to prepare better coverage when news drops, and that relationship looks a lot more reciprocal with a longer view.

“If you break that embargo and you jump out and say ‘Hey, I’ve got the scoop, he’s gonna give us a new ice-breaker,’ you know what?” Arnold asked,  “You’re not gonna be granted that courtesy again.”

And it’s not as if Obama didn’t have any unscripted interactions while in Alaska. He spent an hour hearing from Alaska Native leaders how to improve Federal relations with tribes. He also disappeared onto Exit Glacier with entertainer Bear Grylls, conducted a photo-shoot and interview with Rolling Stone magazine, and ate dinner at the home of Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.

For Matt Buxton, reporter with the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, covering the Kotzebue visit from outside the pool made his stories less about the president, and more about the community’s response to the momentous occasion.

“It was actually fun to be running along the streets, running through back allies, running around security, kinda getting yelled at by security every once in a while as we were trying to get a glimpse of the president like everyone else,” Buxton said. “I don’t know if we would have seen the same kind of thing if we were traveling in the motorcade.”

Buxton says the presidents trip was a huge deal for the folks he spoke with in Kotzebue–a delight and an honor, compared favorably to a 2002 visit from the band The Goo Goo Dolls.

The White House would not comment on the record for this story. But they did release an essay through the web platform Medium reflecting on the trip, along with pictures and videos from the White House’s social media accounts.