(The Root) — John McCain once famously called members of the media his "base," a statement on the fact that even when he was at odds with his own party, he could count on the media to give the "maverick" a fair shake. But according to reports, McCain felt that his base turned on him in favor of a newer, younger political celebrity by the name of Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton's campaign also accused the media of having something in common with Obama Girl by having a crush on then-candidate Obama.
Well, whatever love affair did exist between the media and the president has come to an abrupt end, and like a lot of breakups, this one involves allegations of betrayal and is increasingly acrimonious. In simple terms, if there ends up being a loser in this divorce, it will most certainly be President Obama.
On May 13 it was reported that the Department of Justice had secretly seized records for up to 20 phone lines affiliated with the Associated Press as part of an investigation into an information leak. This turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. It was later revealed that the phone records of Fox News employees had been searched (the Justice Department did notify Fox's parent company), but more troubling was the revelation that the Gmail account of Fox News reporter James Rosen had also been searched, without the company's knowledge.
Even more disturbing is how the government was able to gain judicial access to Rosen's records — by positing that he was being considered as a possible "co-conspirator" to a crime. This caused Fox News head Roger Ailes to write in a memo to staff, "We will not allow a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era, to frighten any of us away from the truth."
With the Obama administration fending off ongoing attacks and investigations over Benghazi, Libya, and an Internal Revenue Service scandal, it may appear that the president should have more important things to worry about than whether or not journalists "like" him.
This is true.
But if journalists don't trust him, that's another matter altogether, and increasingly his administration is making it hard to do that. Fox News has spent much of the last few months trying to turn Benghazi into Barack Obama's Iran-Contra or Watergate. But because of Fox's long-held reputation as the anti-Obama network, few mainstream outlets have taken the channel's conspiracy-obsessed tone seriously.
There's a saying: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not after you." Now that the administration has been caught targeting a Fox News reporter, Fox News doesn't look quite so insanely paranoid after all, and other outlets and journalists are taking notice. One reason is that Rosen is not Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly but a real journalist. For this reason, his targeting and the justification the government has given for doing so — considering him a "co-conspirator" — are sending shivers down the collective spines of journalists and outlets everywhere.
Perhaps the administration thought that instilling a little fear in journalists would be a good thing, until the fallout began. The fact that major outlets are boycotting an off-the-record discussion with Attorney General Eric Holder about this mess is just a sign of things to come. Instead of cowering in fear, the media are standing up to fight and mounting a surprisingly united front to do so.
This can spell nothing but doom for the president. Although he is not facing re-election, he is facing one last midterm election, which will determine what his ultimate legislative legacy will be. But most of all, he is beginning to face the larger legacy that he wants to leave as president, and like it or not, the media play a major role in shaping that.
John McCain, the onetime admired maverick, has forever seen his legacy tarnished into that of a bitter old man. If President Obama is not careful and does not make good-faith efforts to restore the media's trust in him and his administration, then he, too, will find himself left with a legacy he will not be proud of.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.