If you’re a connoisseur of awkward news reporting, stop what you’re doing, turn on the television, and take a peek at the coverage of the presidential inauguration. Every four years, the networks seem unable to decide if they should treat the day’s festivities like Fourth of July fireworks — a celebration to be viewed uncritically — or as a story worthy of serious examination. So they compromise, oscillating between ooh’s and ahh’s appropriate to viewers of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and considered contextualization of events.
An inauguration is a carefully choreographed event, of course, which means there won’t be much in the way of developing news. So the platitudes tend to dominate. On NBC, which has been our network of choice today, Tim Russert took a break from peppering politicians with tough questions on “Meet the Press” to comment approvingly on the first family’s good looks; Andrea Mitchell, known to some as a bulldog of an investigative reporter, used words like “awesome” to describe the armored cars in the presidential motorcade. A moment later, Brian Williams noted the “thickness” of the Secret Service agents walking alongside the presidential limousine. Al Roker even showed up to lob inane questions at the smiling tourists gathered on the street.
But some real news did slip onto the air. When Lester Holt asked one Bush supporter from New Mexico how she got such a good seat for the parade, she admitted that there was nothing to it — she simply cut the right people a check. Lisa Myers did a report on the corporate largesse that helped pay for the festivities. The protesters made their presence known, injecting an element of unpredictability into the proceedings and prompting the sight of limousines speeding up to pass potential trouble spots with Secret Service agents running alongside. Alas, other aspects of the story — such as the District of Columbia having to allocate homeland security funding to help pay for the unprecedented costs of the event’s safety measures, for example — went largely unmentioned.
Which is a little odd, considering that NBC has an awful lot of time to fill today. Watching the proceedings, one thinks back to the Ronald Reagan funeral last summer, during which on-air personalities were reluctant to offer up anything but hagiography. That treatment was perhaps more forgivable, as it’s our nature in funereal remembrances to omit inconvenient facts.
But the inauguration is more than just a day-long piece of artifice — it’s also a serious event with serious ramifications, and the media should treat it as such. In this country, an inauguration isn’t supposed to be a coronation. It’s not too much to ask a free press to keep that in mind.
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