Coverage of Obama “Suds Summit” Hard to Swallow

Top papers waste time covering irrelevant photo-op

The nation’s political media apparently decided to hold a little contest yesterday: Which outlets can produce the most gratuitous, the least insightful, and perhaps even the most offensive coverage of the White House “suds summit”?

The bar was sure to be high, even with cable news disqualified on the grounds that it has an unfair advantage, having honed its skills for just such a challenge over the last decade. While the initial Gates/Crowley affair, for all its baggage, was a legitimate news story, yesterday’s beer party was a straight photo op—just the sort of contrived event that the press loves to mock even as while indulging in it. And so, even restricting the entrants to three of the country’s most influential publications—The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico—the competition was strong.

Politico—famous for its hyper-obsession with horse race politics, notorious for indiscriminate electron-spilling on trivialities, and criticized for often missing the forest for the trees—should have been the favorite coming in. Thursday night, the headline on Josh Gerstein’s story carried a blunt verdict: “‘Beer summit’ letdown.” (The headline has been changed on the updated version of the story.) Here’s Gerstein:

But the portion of the event aired on TV had an anti-climactic feel, and in many ways was exactly what Obama had said it would be earlier – the men sitting around having a drink. One surprise was the addition of Vice President Joe Biden.

Analysts of race relations said the benefits of the White House encounter were murky, at best.

What a disappointment! Because, up until it happened, this whole thing had seemed like it might be a reprise of the March on Washington. Even the president had promised… oh, right. Like the story says, he had promised just what we got—a few guys sitting around drinking beer. The decision to arrange the photo op was not a particularly proud moment for the president. But the press, which knows this game perfectly well, could never have really expected the beer summit to be, in Obama’s clichéd formulation, a “teachable moment.” Pretending otherwise is simply disingenuous.

Continuing:

In the video aired on TV, Crowley and Gates were clad in suits, and while Obama and Biden were in shirtsleeves as an aide delivered beers in frosty mugs. Crowley was seen sipping his beer during the brief photo-op, while Obama and Biden could be seen digging into a bowl of pretzels and peanuts.

Crowley also did the most talking during the few minutes the press was invited to watch, from a distance of about 40 feet.”

I’m not sure who is more demeaned in this scene, the press or the people they’re covering. Call it a tie. I do know that, for the first time since the initial incident, reading this passage—and watching the accompanying video, which is just as enthralling as the story suggests—made me feel sorry for Sgt. Crowley. The other three men around that table, by virtue of their celebrity, had some prior sense of what it’s like to be treated as though you’re on exhibit in a zoo. For Crowley, it must have been a novel experience.

All in a day’s work for Politico, though, which was recently described by Glenn Greenwald as the embodiment of “everything rotted in politics & media.” What’s disappointing is that The New York Times so readily joined in. The Grey Lady, confronted with the same constraints as every other paper in the industry, the same tough choices about how to deploy scare resources, decided to assign not one, not two, but three reporters to live-blog the event. So, did the Times’s talented troika wring any legitimate news or insight out of the meeting? Let’s see:

It’s Begun | 6:24 p.m.

Helene Cooper: At 6:12, reporters and photographers were allowed in for a scant 40 seconds, where they could view the four men sitting around a table drinking out of frosty beer mugs. Four men, you ask? Weren’t there supposed to be three—President Obama, Professor Gates, and Sgt. Crowley?

And Vice President Joseph Biden! He was there too. In fact, during the brief time that the press could watch the goings-on, Mr. Biden leaned across the table towards Sgt. Crowley and said something. At another point, Sgt. Crowley gesturing with his hands, said something to Professor Gates.

And then, the press was ushered out.

Thrilling stuff!

But how about the analysis? Well, at 4:57, Jeff Zeleny provided this thought: “Regardless of the wisdom or accuracy of his words at the White House news conference last week, Mr. Obama seemed to be speaking spontaneously and with passion. Don’t look for a repeat of that anytime soon.” Helene Cooper concurred: “So I think what’s he’s learned from this is that as president, he can’t really say what he thinks.”

So, the White House press corps thinks one of the main takeaways from this whole episode is that the president shouldn’t be expected to say anything worth reporting in the future. Good to know that the peculiar meta-relationship between our political and media class has gotten to that point, and that no one seems much surprised.

Given that fact, it’s not surprising that a few readers wrote in to ask why the press was devoting so much time to this story. That prompted some self-reflection. Peter Baker, in his 5:25 entry, actually makes a good argument for why it was perfectly legitimate—correct, even—for the press initially to ask Obama about the arrest. But then, in the course of responding to a question about why coverage of the “summit” was warranted, Zeleny offered this tidbit at 6:50: “The media has certainly reacted—and, it could accurately be argued, overreacted—to the brouhaha.”

That “accurately” is maddening beyond description. It’s bad enough for media outlets to waste their limited resources covering the same non-story that everyone else is covering. It’s even worse when they admit that this is what they are doing, and do so anyway—as they have done twice in the last month, first with the Sotomayor hearings and now with the suds summit.

The press’s apparent conviction that the proper response to hokey photo-ops or meaningless political theatrics is to engage them, participate in them, criticize them, or even mock them is bizarre. This is wrong. The proper response is to ignore them. Even in summer. Even when everybody’s tired of writing about—and reading about—health care reform. They are not news. The bottom of A10—where the Times put its print coverage of last night’s events—is exactly where this stuff belongs.

The last contestant in this contest, The Washington Post, put its own write-up on A3—more prominent placement than it deserved, but not a grievous offense. And the Post’s standing in this competition is actually harmed by a decent Michael Kinsley column (he doesn’t think Obama made a Kinsley gaffe, after all), some interesting ruminations on the racial history of beer by Maureen Ogle, and a funny cartoon from the reliable Tom Toles. The paper also appears, commendably, not to have live-blogged the proceedings.

But all that is swept aside by a shockingly unfunny video from Post columnists Dana Milbank and Chris Cilizza, part of their new “Mouthpiece Theater” series. Megan Garber has already said most of what needs to be said about this piece, but it’s worth also highlighting the cowardice surrounding one of its most obnoxious moments, when a gratuitous and sexist insult is directed at the Secretary of State—who, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with GatesGate or the “beer summit.” After a smirking mention is made of “Mad Bitch” beer, the maws go silent for a moment, and Hillary Clinton’s photo briefly appears on the screen. Similarly, in Milbank’s column—essentially just a catalog of the same beer-related puns that populate the video—the joke is omitted entirely. If you’re going to tread into this territory, fellas, shouldn’t you at least have the courage to go all the way?

For that moment itself, the Post wins the booby prize in our little contest. But the entire video is really a perfect representation of the sniggering, self-referential tone that runs through so much of the coverage of the “suds summit” and similar events

And, in its profligate waste of the talents of two journalists who can do (or, at least, have done) so much better, it embodies much of what’s wrong about the way the press covers politics. The impulse to poke fun at proceedings that are staged, pointless, or lame is understandable—it allows the worldly-wise observer to show he or she knows how staged and pointless the event is. But there’s no good reason to turn political journalism into a less-funny version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And there’s no reason for journalists—who have agency in these matters—to go along with it.

So, guys, please keep this in mind: If what you’re looking at is so stupid that you can’t believe you’re covering it—if it requires tongue-in-cheek snarkiness and a display of your own shining wit to justify the effort of talking about it at all—you need to turn around and go find a real story.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.