Three words sum up, I think, the current state of our generally scenic but sometimes arid Media Landscape—three words manage to encompass, with an economy that is almost elegant, the ecological pathologies of our political press: “is,” and “Obama,” and “overexposed.”
In combination, they’re usually tied together with a question mark, as in: “Is Obama Overexposed?” Doubt must be implied, of course, because it’s not that Obama is overexposed—oh, nonono, we wouldn’t want to say that!—it’s just that, you know, he might be. Maybe. Or not! (We’re just being rhetorical!)
Rhetorical, indeed. It’s hard to tell whether the greatest irony of the “Is Obama Overexposed?” question is that it’s asked, straight-faced, by the same media who perpetrate the alleged overexposure—or that it’s asked by the same media who, in the next breath, might accuse Obama of not being transparent enough about his messaging—or that it is, as a topic, itself flagrantly overexposed. Regardless, “IOO?” is a cyclical, back-pocket, evergreen-in-a-moldy-kind-of-way question that pops up from its dormant depths every once in a while, like so many gophers or specialty sandwiches or raging cases of athlete’s foot. Obama appeared on five Sunday shows to talk health care?
Here’s the policy he outlined Perhaps he’s overexposed! Obama delivered a speech reaching out to the Muslim world? Here’s the substance of his comments Perhaps he’s overexposed! Obama guested on The Tonight Show? Here’s what he and Jay talked about Perhaps he’s overexposed!
The latest media member to render himself an Obama Overexposeur is, surprisingly, the generally sharp and savvy-in-a-good way New York Times media columnist David Carr. In Monday’s Times—using, as a peg, the Salahi story—Carr examines the particular brand of (alleged!) “overexposure” that is presidential omnipresence not merely on TV, but also on social media. He notes that, had the Bravo cameras following the infamous Gate-gaters been allowed into the the White House, “it’s not as if their presence would have been much of a breach of current protocol.” Considering “the White House’s hulking, media-rich Web site, its Facebook page, photo galleries and podcasts on iTunes,” Carr writes, “the presidency seems less threatened by the incursion of a reality show than running an administration that is in danger of becoming one.”
One of the downsides of having a president who is also Celebrity in Chief is that it creates the impression that the leader of the free world is part of a milieu that is more TMZ than C-SPAN. In an effort to remain connected to the social media world that was so much a part of his electoral victory, the Obama administration may be guilty of a very contemporary common offense: Oversharing.
It’s unclear who, exactly, is the object of Carr’s analysis—who, in this framing, is really losing out when O, you know, Overshares. At one point, it’s Carr himself (“I’d be O.K. with the kimono closing a bit”); at another, it’s Obama by Way of Media Meme (“his shared love of the camera leaves him vulnerable to suggestions that he is too busy appearing as the president and not busy enough being one”); at another, it’s Public Opinion, or some gauzy notion thereof (“One of the downsides of having a president who is also Celebrity in Chief is that it creates the impression that the leader of the free world is part of a milieu that is more TMZ than C-SPAN”).
But we never really get an explanation of how the pop-culturization of the president is, indeed, a bad thing—or, for that matter, a justification for the dismissive tone Carr uses when he refers to “the people’s house,” the traditional alias of the White House, as “a nickname that has never been more apt than under the current residents.” The closest we come is a brand of logic that’s becoming all too easy—and all too familiar: it’s bad because the media say it is. Repeatedly.
Carr quotes two experts on the mingling of politics and television, Lawrence O’Donnell and Michael Hirschorn, both of whom worry—as does Carr—that overexposure will lead to a loss of “the presidential mystique.” And that, actually, seems to be the chief concern here: the sense of mysetery about the presidency. As if the presidency were our spouse and we were facing the grim fact that The Romance Might Be Dying. Carr reminds us that Jackie Kennedy was the first first lady to present Americans with a televised version of the White House in her famous tour with CBS News—and that “the peek was carefully scripted, following her maxim of ‘minimum information given with maximum politeness.’” He notes this not with criticism, but with nostalgia: ah, scripted and limited…those were the days.