“Obama Overexposed?”: Upon Us Yet Again

Carr puts a new spin on the old question

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.

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.