What Hath Dog Wrought

Bo-bama, unleashing cable's worst impulses

So. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, unless you spent yesterday under a rock or in a coma or some such, the American public has now been officially introduced to our new First Pooch: a six-month-old Portuguese water dog named Bo.

The presidential puppy, unsurprisingly, inspired a flurry of news coverage: stories of inspiration itself; stories of betrayal; stories that explored “The Wonderful Benefits of Animal Companionship”; stories that offered doggie health tips; stories that analyzed the now-iconic picture of President Obama and his new pooch running in the White House.

Yes. Insert your favorite “wag the dog” reference here. But if you’re expecting a screed about the level of attention paid to the Public Debut of Bo the Dog, on a day when so much else was going on in the world…well, you won’t find it here. Because Bo Obama’s homecoming is a story—not one that will affect the future of Iberian-American relations, or anything, but a story nonetheless. It offers a bit of resonant mythology (the new member joining the community, the expansion of family ties, the circle of life, etc.)…all bound up in the being of an energetic, fluffy, white-pawed little Portie whose full name is, oh-so-delightfully, Bo Obama.

Truly, what’s not to like?

In the coverage it garnered on cable news, however, this simple story of homecoming and general adorability took on a life of its own. And not a good one. All viewers wanted, yesterday, was video of a poky little puppy romping around with his charming new family. They (‘we,’ I should say—because, yes, I was among those viewers) wanted a heartwarming piece of fluff that would liven and leaven a news day otherwise populated with economic slumping, terror-threating, and pirate invasions of a distinctly non-Disney variety.

Instead, we got Cesar Millan—yes, The Dog Whisperer—informing Wolf Blitzer, and CNN’s early-evening viewing audience along with him, that Bo’s rhymes-with-‘No’ name won’t, in fact, confuse the puppy. (“The dogs don’t have a problem with the word,” the canine communicator explained to the canine-named communicator. “They have a problem with the energy behind the word.”) We got segments inhabited by the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin and similar-caliber commentators, who graciously took time out of their lives and ours to discuss Why People Care So Much about Presidential Pooches (spoiler alert: it’s because pets tend to humanize our presidents!). We got, in the end, a bunch of rootin’, tootin’, high-fallutin’ stuff…when all we wanted was a lighthearted look at puppy love.

Call it a Dog Complex. Cable outlets, yesterday, were struggling mightily between Bo Obama’s considerable Cuteness Quotient and their own Sense of Civic Purpose (such as it is). What resulted was a fairly transparent—and often full-on laughable—attempt to have it both ways: to cover the Bomecoming, or what have you, as audience desires would demand; but then, at the same time, to make it perfectly clear (to that same audience) that it was beneath the networks’ dignity to do so. Okay, guys, here’s our obligatory coverage of Bo the Dog…but we know it’s pretty ridiculous that we’re airing it, so we’re going to jazz things up with presidential historians and dog whisperers!

Or simply, you know, so we’re going to make a joke of it all!. To wit, Keith Olbermann—who asked, yesterday evening, “Why do people still care about the dog anymore? Aren’t we dogged out?”…after having named Bo’s Homecoming as the number-one story in his Countdown.

Yes. The number-one story. As Olbermann himself had it, introducing his “BOW-WOW” segment: Good grief.

Now, hey, when it comes to cable coverage, I’m usually all for analysis, and everything; 99 percent of the time, cable news needs more smart commentary, not less. But, in the case of Bo-bama…analysis and meta-commentary doesn’t just miss the point; it is full-on preposterous. I mean, it’s a dog. Just have fun with the story! And, as you’re doing so, just come out and admit that you’re only covering it because it’s entertaining, and because it’s heartwarming, and because not everything has to have meta-implications. Some things needn’t be—shouldn’t be—elevated. Some things should be, on the contrary, celebrated for their very groundedness and averageness and relatability. Human interest stories—when they’re of true human interest (rather than the products of cable’s attempts to sensationalize the serious and elevate the vapid)—needn’t be apologized for.

But the kind of tone-deafness so prominently on display in yesterday’s cable coverage is precisely what many people resent about cable news (not to mention the media more generally): its tendency to inject melodrama into even the most banal and undramatic of stories. Its impulse to dress things up in sequins and boas and pancake makeup rather than simply present them, to the extent possible, as they are. Waxing rhetorical about The Cultural Significance of Bo the Dog, in this case, isn’t merely absurd; it verges on intellectual dishonesty. It suggests an attempt to fool audiences into thinking they’re watching Substantial Commentary, when in fact what they’re watching is the same kind of body-language-expert-focused, banter-happy drivel they’re so used to seeing on cable news.

By all means, report on Bo’s debut; but report on it. There’s no need to gild the puppy. Good grief.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.