Obama and the media trivialization of public policy.
Have you noticed how often Obama has been upstaged by triviality?
Obama devoted most of his first press conference as president to the global financial crisis. The last question was about his laggard progress in obtaining the dog promised to his daughters if he won the election. For the next three news cycles all we heard about was the dog, to Obama's stated chagrin.
Responding to criticism that American didn't yet understand even the fundamentals of the healthcare reforms he was proposing, Obama in a later press conference focused on that topic, in which he gave a masterful summary of the proposals. Plus an easily digestible civics lesson on how actually it's Congress that is devising the proposals, not his administration, with limited only input from the president. It was a tour de force, a sort of televised "fireside chat." Alas, it ended with a question about Obama's reaction to the unwarranted arrest of his friend, the renowned academic Henry Louis Gates. mistaken for a burglar in his own Cambridge, Mass. home, the night before
For the next two weeks, all we heard about was "Gatesgate." Coverage of what the president had to say on healthcare was, to be charitable, scant. Many pundits excused themselves for not carefully parsing what Obama had to say on healthcare reform - sussing out the strengths and weaknesses of the most significant domestic reform since Medicare in 1965 - by pronouncing themselves bored with what Obama had said on policy. As if it was the president's job to entertain the press, not educate the public about the inner workings of American government - the transparency Obama campaigned on.
Still concerned, rightly, that Americans didn't understand the implications of the proposed healthcare reforms, especially after an August characterized by scaremongering and falsehoods, Obama sought an extraordinary joint session of Congress to speak on the issue, again in such a straightforward manner that some pundits declared it was his best speech ever. Which is saying a lot, obviously, since Obama's 2004 DNC breakout address and Rev. Wright speech in Philadelphia last year were in the running.
What we heard about in the aftermath, however, was the outburst - "You lie!" - by an obscure congressman in response to a line in the president's speech which happened to be true. (Photo: Obama pauses briefly in his address on healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress Sept. 10 when a South Carolina congressman shouted "You lie." Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were nonplussed, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was furious and spent several minutes looking in the general direction of the outburst to identify the heckler, who later apologized to Obama.)
There are some big problems in the proposals coming out of the five Congressional committees that have "reported out" health care reform packages. Also many positive things. All meaty stuff for a responsible media to study and report upon to the American people, who unlike the president and Congress are in daily communication with the people. As with the falsehoods that characterized the run-up to the Iraq war, the news media again are failing in their basic responsibility to inform the audience it "serves" on an issue of fundamental importance. The aspect of this that makes one want to wretch is the comments lately by Frank Rich among others that the president has done an insufficiently comprehensive job in explaining how he and Congress mean to reshape that one-fifth of the U.S. economy that is the healthcare system.
Obama has done plenty of explaining, employing every venue from Congress to town-hall gatherings in Wisconsin to "Late Night with David Letterman." The media, by sharp contrast, have not explained what's at stake in healthcare reform. They have instead devoted most of their coverage to the admittedly telegenic scenes of protesters toting placards of Obama depicted as Hitler or Lenin. Not the media's finest hour. But there've been so few of those since Watergate that one isn't surprised. Save, perhaps, that the passage of time - and the news media's chronic low regard in polls of respected vocations - doesn't seem to change its M.O.
Courtesy Tom Toles, Washington Post.
This is not a U.S. phenomenon, of course. Some of us are still wondering if Harper pocketed or digested that communion wafer. Our news media worked themselves into a lather over Harper's slighting at the White House last week when our PM was greeted by flunkies and not The Waterwalker as he alighted from his limo. The real story is that at their most recent summit encounter, Obama told Harper he'd prefer they not have their scheduled drive-by tete-et-tete, and that Harper instead come to the White House for a longer and more substantive talk.
"Newspapering, despite urgent prodding from schools of journalism, has always lagged behind the learned professions on the march to seemliness." What's depressing about press critic A.J. Liebling's observation is that he made it so long ago, and that so little has changed since.