The Medium is the Message

Michael Scherer at Time magazine’s Swampland blog on D.C. politics picked up on a little jab from the press-critic-in-chief last week:

“In a little noticed aside at the end of Thursday’s jobs summit, Obama effectively painted the press as an obstacle to not just the much-needed economic recovery, but to America recovering its 20th Century position as an economic powerhouse,” Scherer wrote.

President Obama’s candor on the White House press corps came in reference to coverage of his recent trip to China.

… Frankly, this town and the way the political dialogue is structured right now is not conducive to what we need to do to be globally competitive. And all of you are leaders in your communities — in the business sector and the labor sector, in academia, we even have a few pundits here — it is important to understand what’s at stake and that we can’t keep on playing games.

I mentioned that I was in Asia on this trip thinking about the economy, when I sat down for a round of interviews. Not one of them asked me about Asia. Not one of them asked me about the economy. I was asked several times about had I read Sarah Palin’s book. (Laughter.) True. But it’s an indication of how our political debate doesn’t match up with what we need to do and where we need to go.

It’s a line of thinking that former New York Times bureau chief and current Columbia journalism professor Howard French hit on back when Obama’s trip to China was being widely panned by the press. French said:

“I don’t think that [the press] have gotten it right, to put things very simply. I think that part of the problem is not especially China-related but strikes me as a reflection of something that’s happening in the culture, particularly in the news culture, partially in response to the habits of television coverage and the increased pressures that come from digital media. There’s a growing reflex of instant punditry and reflexive reaction that works counter to more meaningful analysis… I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They’re at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff.

Scherer’s article notes that some broadcast reporters did ask substantial questions during the China trip: Fox News’ Major Garrett asked both about Obama’s proposed jobs bill and the South Korean trade agreement and NBC’s Chuck Todd asked about the jobs summit and Chinese relations on human rights.

But Scherer points out that Obama only took two questions from the U.S. print press corps over the course of his seven day trip to Asia and that, while he regularly meets on and off-the-record with columnists who his advisers see as “more intellectually substantive (or politically influential)”, he doesn’t do the same with beat reporters.

Perhaps the solution to counter the cable television knee-jerks, Scherer suggests, would be for Obama to quit whining and simply grant more interviews to the print reporters whose medium lends itself to more serious discussion and less to sensational sound-bytes.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.