Of FOX News and Catnip

Alessandra Stanley's treatment of the Obama "snub" misses the point

Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times piece today on President Obama’s health care-themed weekend media blitz included a photo montage that told the story even better than Stanley’s words do.

There on the front page was a collection of pictures taken from the same vantage point: Obama sitting in the same leather chair, talking in succession with a rotating cast of television reporters: George Stephanopoulos from ABC, Bob Schieffer from CBS, John King from CNN, David Gregory from NBC, and Jorge Ramos from Univision. It looked like a time-lapsed photo of a speed-dating session.

The patchwork of photos was also a glaring reminder, however, that one news outlet hadn’t been invited to the party. After refusing to air Obama’s health care speech on September 9 in favor of a broadcast of So You Think You Can Dance, Fox News got the presidential snub. And Stanley did her part in pointing that out:

Mr. Obama declined to discuss his proposals on the one outlet guaranteed to find fault (or change the topic to the ACORN scandal). And that made his star turn look less like a media blitz than Medici vengeance….

Stanley went on to say that punishing Fox in this manner makes the usually “diplomatic” and “even-keeled” White House look petty. And rightfully so: the snub did look like the kind of fifth-grade, nah-nah-boo-boo kind of behavior that Obama purports to rise above. And Chris Wallace at Fox didn’t elevate matters, to be sure, when he told Bill O’Reilly that White House aides were “a bunch of crybabies.”

But then, Wallace also redeemed himself. Again, Stanley:

Mr. Wallace bemoaned the presidential slight, asking, “Whatever happened to reaching out to all Americans?”

Well said. If the whole point of doing sit-downs with five different news outlets is that a) you want to reach the widest audience possible, and b) the audience is increasingly fragmented, so c) you need to conduct more interviews to reach that splintered audience, and d) you want to clear up misunderstanding about health care, so e) you don’t want to preach to the choir but win the hearts and minds of people who are less likely to subscribe to your thinking, then … (big breath) … in conclusion, not only should you include Fox; you should focus on it. (Even pundits at Fox’s Sworn Enemy, MSNBC, suggested that fact.)

Stanley, however, for her part, kept her distance from “hearts and minds,” focusing her attention instead on the childish “he hit me first” whine-fest between Fox and the White House. In concentrating on the slap-fight, however, Stanley ignored what should be a media critic’s main concern: the audience. She closed her write-up with Obama’s thoughts on the news media’s performance these days—and whether he thinks racism is responsible for some of the recent attacks against him. Stanley:

Nipping the hands that he was feeding, Mr. Obama suggested that the news media were fueling the furor.

“I do think part of what’s different today is that the 24-hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides,” he told Mr. Schieffer. “They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.”

Then, in the theatrical spin that is a hallmark of any Stanley piece, the critic concluded with a kicker that succumbed to the very taste-for-conflict-and-drama that Obama was disparaging:

Mostly, however, Mr. Obama demonstrated that the news media are catnip to presidents.

Well, zing. But, again: where is the discussion of the audience in all this? In ignoring that crucial point, Stanley proved one thing about the news media: that they love talking about themselves more than anything in world—even more than getting at the heart of the news itself.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.