The Times’s Fluffy Coverage of the State of the Union

A poor show that amplifies Obama's public-relations spiel

Did The New York Times really need to lead its page one with a two-column, three-line headline about a pedestrian State of the Union speech?

I doubt it, but apparently the Times was inspired. One thing’s for sure, though: The headline is terrible:

Obama Proposing Bipartisan Effort To Win the Future

“Win the future” was the theme of Obama’s speech (which he ripped off Newt Gingrich, of all people). It’s bad enough that the he used a seriously lame phrase like that. It’s worse that the Times amplified the president’s banal PR in its headline—especially without putting it in quotes.

“Win the Future” ain’t exactly an “Axis of Evil” moment. It would have been just fine if the body of the story even had left it unmentioned.

The subhed is poor, too:

‘We Need To Out-Innovate, Out-Educate, And Out-Build The Rest Of The World’

Well, yeah—no shit.

Why pull that meaningless quote into a subhed? I reckon I’ve heard a variation on the same thing in every State of the Union of the last twenty years.

Then there’s the lede, which might as well have been written by the White House itself:

President Obama challenged Americans on Tuesday night to unleash their creative spirit, set aside their partisan differences and come together around a common goal of outcompeting other nations in a rapidly shifting global economy.

“Unleash their creative spirit,” “set aside their partisan differences,” and “come together around a common goal of outcompeting”? Get outta here.

The NYT would have been better off scrapping the first paragraph and leading with the second, although these programs sound an awful lot like the usual poll-tested SOTU chestnuts. Switchgrass, anyone?

In a State of the Union address to a newly divided Congress, Mr. Obama outlined what he called a plan to “win the future” — a blueprint for spending in critical areas like education, high-speed rail, clean-energy technology and high-speed Internet to help the United States weather the unsettling impact of globalization and the challenge from emerging powers like China and India.

At the same time Obama’s proposing new spending programs, he’s calling for a five-year freeze on discretionary spending. How does that work? We’re not told and the discrepancy isn’t even pointed out.

The Wall Street Journal talked to Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs about that in a nice blog post this morning:

Unless the Obama administration can find ways to fund new projects “without any money,” Mr. Sachs says, the best it can hope for if it intends to cap discretionary spending is to prevent cuts in the areas it promises to emphasize.

Not that the paper’s A1 headline was much better than the NYT’s:

Obama: U.S. Must Compete

Though the Journal’s story, naturally, is a bit less rapturous than the Times’s (emphasis mine):

By 2035, he said 80% of America’s electricity should come from clean energy sources. Within 25 years, 80% of Americans should have access to high-speed rail. Within five years, communications businesses should be able to deploy high-speed wireless to 98% of all Americans. He did little to explain how those goals would be reached beyond pledges to boost federal spending on infrastructure and basic research.

Much of what the president called for to boost the nation’s competitiveness are items he has pushed for two years. Many of them—such as investments in high-speed rail, expanded Internet access and more infrastructure spending—were central to his stimulus plan of 2009.

The Times finally gets to this point down in the eighteenth paragraph (emphasis mine):

The speech was light on new policy proposals, reflecting both political and fiscal restraints on the administration after two years in which it achieved substantial legislative victories but lost the midterm elections, failed to bring the unemployment rate below 9 percent and watched the budget deficit rise sharply…

He did not lay out any specific plans for addressing the long-term costs of Social Security and Medicare, the biggest fiscal challenges ahead. He backed an overhaul of corporate taxes but spoke only in passing about the need to simplify the tax code for individuals. He called for legislation to address illegal immigration but provided no details.

He called for an end to subsidies for oil companies and set a goal of reducing dependence on polluting fuels over the next quarter-century, but without any mechanism to enforce it. And in a speech largely devoted to economic issues, he talked only generally about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you ask me, that’s the lede right there.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,