At WFLA, Good Questions for Obama…

...but Tampa's viewers deserved a more balanced report

FLORIDA — As I listened to the question being asked I started to groan a bit:

“Yesterday you released your 2013 fiscal budget and it’s like, let the partisan bickering begin. We have the Republicans already saying it is reckless, Democrats are saying it’s fair. But it has been like 1,000 days, more than, since the Senate actually produced a budget…”

This was starting to sound an awful lot like a question a fellow Democrat might ask President Obama, who was sitting in a chair across from his questioner.

“…how long does the American public have to wait for Congress to get its act together and produces a budget that we can live with…”

I started to shake my head in dismay.

“…and it makes you wonder about the one you are proposing now, does it even have a chance?”

That question was asked approximately one minute into an 11 minute, 20 second interview Tampa’s WFLA NewsChannel 8 had Tuesday with President Obama. And despite my early misgivings, WFLA’s reporter, Keith Cate, did a pretty good job.

WFLA, on the other hand, did not. Cate was able to ask some serious questions about topics that matter to Floridians—housing, jobs, the federal budget, and whether Obama has succeeded in changing Washington. But viewers didn’t see the entire interview unless they bothered to go to the station’s website.

That’s standard, if unfortunate, practice in local TV news. But more disturbing was the fact that WFLA gave Obama unchallenged access to its airwaves. Not a single Republican or independent political analyst was part of the three individual broadcasts that were done by WFLA. No attempt was made to bring greater depth to the reports.

That was a shame. Cate did his job. His producers should have used other staff to quickly provide balance to his stories.

Ostensibly, the White House organized the interview to discuss the housing crisis. Obama’s team invited television reporters from four markets—Atlanta, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Tampa. (For CJR’s take on the Las Vegas interview, see here.) While the housing crisis may have been the topic, the 2012 election clearly was the reason for interviews in these key states and markets. (One benefit for the selected stations: February is a TV sweeps period, and to get the chance to go to the White House and interview the President is a great opportunity to boost viewership during a critical time that helps decide advertising rates.)

WFLA parceled its footage out over each of the three evening newscasts. As so often happens in local television, some time in each broadcast was devoted to banter between the anchor and Cate, who stood in front of the White House, and noted each time that he was standing in front of the White House.

In the first, four-minute segment, Cate asked the question above, which—while the tone made me cringe a bit—was timely and newsworthy. Obama got an unfiltered 93 seconds to offer his answer, which boiled down to—yup, Congress is divided, wish they would listen, doing the best I can.

At 6 p.m., WFLA devoted nearly five minutes to the interview, with the focus of the report on Florida’s housing crisis. It starts with Cate asking a pointed question:

“You invited us here to talk about housing. It is one of the biggest economic problems we have in the state of Florida. We have a housing market that’s just tanked. More than half of the people, about 2 million folk, are underwater on their homes. They can’t afford to stay in their homes. Their homes aren’t worth what they are paying for them. What is the solution?”

Once again Obama offers nothing new. He says government can’t solve the entire problem, and “we helped states like Florida that have been hardest hit by giving them additional dollars to provide assistance to homeowners directly…” Obama speaks for nearly 90 seconds in this segment.

During the final evening broadcast at 11 p.m., the story moved on to whether Washington has changed since Obama took office. Cate opened this segment with this comment: “This is the second time I’ve been to the White House to speak to the President and he was very candid this time around as, frankly, he always is….”

Not surprisingly, Obama says he has made the federal government more efficient and has eliminated or changed more than 500 federal rules. The entire segment is 3 minutes, 18 seconds. Obama speaks, uninterrupted, for nearly two minutes.

It was a great night for Obama. Not a great night for the viewers of WFLA, who deserved to have a more balanced report.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.