Reporting Celebrity

Press loses context, glosses Obamas’ popularity in Europe

As the Obamas swept across Europe late last week and this weekend, they left some very glittery, starry-eyed reports behind them. An AP story wrote that Obama’s town hall meeting in Strasbourg “exploded repeatedly in applause,” and that “two young women bounced up and down, toddler-like, after touching the tips of his fingers.” The Los Angeles Times described a sixteen-year-old German girl who had come to Strasbourg from Heidelberg to see the “great American president.” And reporting from the Czech Republic, The New York Times noted that the audience of 20,000 that Obama addressed Sunday was “transfixed” and interviewed a woman in the crowd who had gotten up at 4 a.m. to “make sure she could get a glimpse of Mr. Obama.” Don’t even get me started on Mrs. Obama—her fashion choices, her biceps, her hugs.

There’s nothing wrong with reporting the ooh, he touched my hand response that Obama elicits, or the enthusiasm that the tabloids and style mags have shown for Michelle Obama. Those reactions aren’t fabricated; they’re real. But many of these reports suffer from a kind of rootless celebrity-spotting instinct, and lack a frame that would place the First Couple’s enthusiastic reception in a more meaningful context. Celebrity doesn’t exist in a vacuum—but read some of these accounts, and you may think it does.

Take the AP’s solipsistic account of Michelle Obama’s meeting with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, documented prominently in an article headlined “France—and its president—go ga-ga over Obama”:

Their wives, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in an understated beige-gray chiffon dress and Michelle Obama in a black A-line coat flecked with fuschia flowers, exchanged kisses on the cheek, French style, and disappeared into a lunch prepared by Michelin-starred chef Philippe Bohrer.

A 1999 Pomerol wine from Bordeaux and Coquilles St. Jacques scallops set the refined tone for their cordial, if not overly gushing, exchange.

It’s an isolated image that doesn’t add anything of value—it’s about as useful to know that the women ate scallops as it is to note that they seemed to have formed a friendship.

Particularly when there are other things of import to note. Michelle Obama’s most significant stop during the trip was arguably not at all the meeting with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. It was her visit to a school in the Islington area of London the day before, where she told a group of young minority girls what she thought was cool as a student. (Hint: it has nothing to do with a 1999 Pomerol wine from Bordeaux.) It was her only speech in London, and it’s what prompted the LAT to do a slightly better job in reporting on the First Lady’s influence, noting that her role has been

one that blends a high-wattage celebrity with a message about self-reliance and personal possibility — a story of special resonance on a continent where no minorities have risen to such prominence.

As characterizations go, it’s a pretty human one, and it’s perhaps not so different from the happy-to-hyperventilate reports that she flouted royal etiquette by touching the queen’s back (and the queen didn’t care!), but the difference is in the choice of lenses. Pull back, and offer some context.

Likewise, accounts of Pres. Obama’s town halls and speeches sometimes dove into the crowd—with remarks from excited young Europeans piling up in an echo chamber of repeated praise—and forgot to zoom out to show readers how this adulation fits into the bigger political picture.

For instance, the same AP article that so prominently documented the First Ladies’ wardrobe and lunch menu also missed the stagecraft aspect of Obama’s town hall in Strasbourg, merely noting earnestly that “Obama had some nice things to say about the French lifestyle” and that “in Strasbourg’s streets, optimism and good will toward Obama persists.” The LAT article about the same town hall got it, however, tacitly admitting the political usefulness of Obama’s public appearances before enthusiastic crowds (whose leaders he was trying to sell on Afghanistan and the economy) by describing the tightly planned infrastructure of his engagements:

It was the third time in two days that Obama has held a public question-and-answer session, coming less than 24 hours after the president held a lengthy news conference in the wake of the G-20 summit in London.

The crowds, after all, come out when there are events—and to treat an event in isolation is to lose out on the bigger story. It also means that, as a reporter, you run the risk of letting an often self-selective crowd be the litmus test of a country’s mood. Considering events in context diminishes that risk.

Another thing that shrinks perspective: bypassing the content of a speech that supposedly “transfixed” an audience, as a NYT story about Obama’s reception in the Czech Republic does. Laying out a predictable narrative of he came, he conquered, it mentions gleefully that Obama was able to cite the phrase Velvet Revolution in “flawless Czech,” and won his Czech listeners over. That might have been what transfixed the audience, but so too might have been the fact that North Korea had launched a rocket just hours before, and that Obama specifically addressed the incident in his speech. The article doesn’t mention it, or most of the content of Obama’s speech, and in so doing, it impedes its own verdict—that the American president’s visit was a success.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.