Live from the White House, it’s KETV

Obama goes local; local anchors land on the South Lawn

The news at KETV Wednesday afternoon was much as you would expect from an ABC affiliate in Omaha. Among the local television station’s “hot topics”: Cornhuskers football, flu shots, and Student of the Week; other stories included a report on a car running into a garage and a weather forecast predicting light snow. Not exactly what sweeps week dreams are made of.

But KETV had another hot story, one less expected for a station in the heartland: correspondent Rob McCartney’s interview with President Obama.

McCartney was one of ten local television reporters—many hailed, unsurprisingly, from purple swing states like Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania—to be granted “special, behind-the-scenes access” to the White House and an opportunity to interview the president Tuesday. The event, billed by Obama’s staff as “Live from the White House,” was the latest effort to pitch the administration’s American Jobs Act to the public—this time through messengers who, they must have hoped, would be bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and less cynical than those in the national press corps.

Most of these reporters are actually seasoned professional from large markets. But their itinerary for the day brought to mind a class trip: filming privileges on the South Lawn (“where Marine One usually lands,” gushed John Hook of KSAZ, Fox’s affiliate in Phoenix); a visit to the White House vegetable garden and beehive; and a much-remarked-upon meeting with Bo, the first pet, and Sam Kass, the White House’s brawny assistant chef.

They also got an off-the-record lunch with David Plouffe, meetings with cabinet members, and a chance to ask press secretary Jay Carney a question at the daily briefing. (Awk-ward, according to LA Times reporter Peter Nicholas, a daily briefing regular).

And, most notably, they got to speak with Obama. The interviews were brief (five to seven minutes) and informal (neither the reporters nor the president were seated, which mostly left them both looking uncomfortable). Even so, Obama’s message was clear: we’re not satisfied with the economy, and we’re working on it. Congress is not doing everything it can, but I am.

But if Obama expected softball questions, that’s not exactly what he got. In the interviews, all of the reporters challenged the president on the weakness of the economy during his tenure and a range of other issues that hit close to home.

Hook grilled the president on the housing crisis, while Dave Ward of KTRK, the ABC affiliate in Houston, focused his questions on NASA and what he called the “untapped” job-creating potential of the oil and gas industry. Ward challenged Obama with Rick Perry’s assertion—and the widely-held Houstonian belief, according to Ward—that the industry could quickly create more than one million jobs, a claim the president disputed.

The administration’s obvious self-interest here was also acknowledged on a number of the local newscasts. Here’s what Adele Arakawa of KUSA in Denver had to say before one of her segments:

In the interest of transparency, we should explain that this event was indeed a piece of strategy by the Obama administration to take his jobs plan and his push for the jobs act to the people, and that was through us being the local TV stations and the media.

And here’s how McCartney flagged for viewers the White House’s attempts at message control:

This was the day that the President hoped to use to sway America. He opened up his administration to select local media from across the country. This was a day to talk jobs, jobs, jobs.

As the newscast cut to footage of Bo, McCartney laid his skepticism a bit thicker (and needlessly so):

When you want to make a good first impression you lead with the dog, in this case the first dog. Just one way the president is pushing his pet project.

After another segment, KETV’s anchor Adrian Whitsett asked McCartney: “Rob, you got some unprecedented access from the White House today, but it was highly orchestrated, right?” And like a number of the other stations, KETV ran an interview with a Republican at the end of the segment to offer another take on the jobs bill.

In all, despite the hokiness that crept into some of the broadcasts, the bulk of the coverage was thoughtful and well-done. But at the same time, “Live from the White House” cannot be dismissed as a wasted messaging effort for Obama.

Indeed, in a week in which the national press corps—already bored with the stalled American Jobs Act—has been frustratingly and entirely absorbed by Herman Cain’s maybe-shenanigans in the late 1990s, the president’s efforts to reach the public through local television channels look particularly shrewd. Besides pushing his jobs plan, Obama managed to tailor his message ten times over, and address the regional issues that get less play within the Beltway and on the national nightly news.

In this way, viewers in these markets got something too—a chance to hear the president speak on the more local issues that matter to them.

It may be a time-honored tradition to poke fun at local newscasters—Nichols made note of his visiting colleagues’ “lustrous hair and chiseled features”—but it’s smart and, maybe, predictable that the administration is taking them seriously.

And since Obama is taking them seriously, so is another presidential contender—one of lustrous hair and chiseled features, even. Just one day after KRTV Houston and KUSA Denver got their exclusives with Obama, they were contacted by Mitt Romney’s campaign and offered one-on-one interviews. Turns out the top Republican contender has an acute sense of timing, too.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.