Carr neglects to note, though, that Jackie’s scriptedness on camera belied the administration’s behind-the-scenes strategy: Kennedy and his staffers used their personal connections to both the national press corps and Hollywood in a way that set the stage for the celebridencies of Reagan and Clinton and now, perhaps, Obama. And Carr neglects another, and even more, fundamental point: that social media and traditional media—television, in particular—are vastly different in terms of the cognitive effect they have on their audiences.

Social media are, to use a term we’ll likely be hearing a lot of in the next couple of weeks, an opt-in proposition in a way that network television, for instance, is not: Obama’s Flickr feed and Facebook page and the like aren’t inflicted on audiences indiscriminantly, but rather are there for those who want extensive coverage of White House goings-on. If you don’t care what David Axelrod had for lunch yesterday or what Obama wore to the day’s pickup basketball game, fair enough (I don’t, either); but, then, some people do. Which is to say: some citizens do. Either way: isn’t it good to know that such content is out there in the first place—as an informational resource and a humanizing agent and a nod, however banal, toward accountability?

But, then, we come back—as, apparently, we always must—to solipsism. If the media are getting a case of O-verload, goes the thinking, then the rest of the country must be, too, right? But the particular frustration of any foray into “Is Obama Overexposed”? territory is that it will always be, to some degree, hypocritical: if indeed one finds that the president is ‘overexposed,’ the media—yes, the same media asking the question about overexposure in the first place—will obviously be complicit in the overexposure. And yet: one will never find that the president is ‘overexposed,’ because, by its own internal logic, the Presidential Exposure inquiry is a question that defies definitive answers. “Overexposed” according to whom? “Overexposed” in relation to what?

The question itself represents the worst kind of cynicism both by and about our media: it’s a question we ask repeatedly that we, clearly, have no real interest in answering.

Take the following write-up of a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted this September, headlined “Poll: Obama Overexposed? Most Say No” and summarized thusly:

A new CBS News/New York Times survey suggests that most Americans do not think so. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said Mr. Obama has made about the right number of appearances, while an additional four percent say he has made too few.

Thirty-five percent do believe that the president has made too many appearances. But that’s exactly the same percentage as disapproved of the president in a CBS News poll earlier this month – and it’s likely that any presidential appearances would be too many for at least some members of that group.

Emphasis mine, to flag: Why the “do believe,” rather than simply “believe”? The extra word here suggests defensiveness, as if the 58 percent who don’t believe Obama is overexposed is a point being conceded, rather than merely reported…and as if the 35 percent that do believe it are ratifying a pre-conceived thesis rather than providing simple data. Don’t let the truth get in the way (of a good story), etc.

The Presidential Exposure line of logic makes for just that: a good story. In, however, the most superficial sense—as an easy, provocative narrative that requires little expertise to report or consume (“The president: overexposed? Discuss”). It’s the cognitive antithesis to stories about the Afghanistan quagmire or the economic crisis or the health care debate. And it’s a question that generally arouses partisan passions despite (and perhaps because of) its reductiveness—the question of exposure’s propriety being contingent on how much one wants to see of this particular president in the first place. And “partisan passions” equal, of course…traffic! Attention! Links! Reductio ad Drudgebaitium!

All of that makes the question appealing; none of that makes it justified. “Is Obama overexposed?” may be—on top of many other things—solipsism that sells. But should it be sold? The answer to that one is easy: No.


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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.