campaign desk

Professor Obama

The press goes for style over substance on the press conferences
March 27, 2009

In a remarkable show of consensus, news outlets from The O’Reilly Factor to NPR all landed on one word—professorial—to describe Barack Obama’s demeanor at Tuesday’s press conference.

The sentiment initially lingered as The New York Times assessed Obama’s performance at yesterday’s town hall (emphasis mine throughout): “Mr. Obama, adopting the teacher-like tone he used during Tuesday’s press conference, launched into a lengthy explanation…”

Wednesday, writing in the Times, Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney went for the surface assessment in their lede:

For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.

Instead, in his second prime-time news conference from the White House, it was Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, “as I said before” — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.

USA Today also paused to note Obama’s bearing: “The president’s tone was a mix of the populist — “I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,” he said at one point, albeit with a calm demeanor — and the professor.”

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And, on CNN, Anderson Cooper also tried to assess the president’s elusive nature: “We’ve seen one candidate Obama and two President Obamas… During the campaign sweetness, light and hope, and the first press conference very pessimistic, and last night taking the middle ground, sort of like the somewhat positive, but at the same time very cautious, trying to look like the steady hand in the tiller, almost sounding professorial at times.”

The depiction of Obama as “the professor” is nothing new and, is based in, you know, fact, since he actually was a professor at University of Chicago.

But as written, or spoken, these references aren’t designed to evoke Obama’s years at the lectern. The references are derogatory. His professorial demeanor isn’t meant to be interpreted as “that cool professor who said really interesting, stimulating things, who took an interest in his students,” but rather as “that boring professor who goes on and on, without understanding his audience and what they care about.”

Which may or may not be a fair assessment, but it’s a hardly objective take. Given that only a certain percentage of people reading the next day’s presser recap actually watched the event themselves, it seems wasteful to let policy details play second fiddle to subjective details like demeanor.

These articles’ implicit assumption—that the presidents’ (and his cabinet’s) job is, primarily, to strike the right tone—offers a poor rubric by which to evaluate his success as a leader. Yes, his public persona is an important consideration, but shouldn’t the focus be on the substance of his policies actions, not the aura that he projects or the content of his speeches?

One reason why post-presser reports are short on substantive analysis may be that press conferences rarely generate actual news. If the president says nothing new about his economic plans, then why treat his recycled sound bites as new, right?

But, looking at the substance of presser write-ups, it becomes clear that the White House press conference has become a see-and-be-seen event, rather than an actual news-gathering exercise. And if that’s the case, then the answer is sort of obvious: if there’s no news, there’s no story. Press conferences might be good places to gather context quotes for later reporting, but if nothing new happens there and then, just don’t write it.

Just to be clear, a press conference or a speech isn’t a news event, and treating them as such is misguided. Actions speak louder than words. Not what he said. Not how he said it. What he did. That should be the story.

This isn’t to say that speeches can’t be significant, and that the press shouldn’t cover what politicians say when it’s new or newsworthy. But even if the press conference is devoid of actual news, I’m not convinced that Obama’s tone is newsworthy enough to earn prominent mention in the headlines, “In a Volatile Time, Obama Strikes a New Tone,” like the Times declared.

Yet, if the tone’s the thing, if it is the only consummately newsy thing that happens in a press conference, ought it not be reported with a tad more objectivity and distance than the “professorial” labels evoke? Instead of labeling it with the press corps nom du jour, why not reach out to actual viewers for reactions? What was the people’s response? How did they perceive the president’s tone? Instead of telling people how they should feel, why not ask them? If tone matters, let’s treat it with some dignity. But, since it doesn’t, let’s just stick to the issues.

In the end, the focus on tone demonstrates all over again how the press transforms politics into a blood sport with quantifiable winners and losers, which is disconnected from the significance of actual policy—roads built, hospitals staffed, schools renovated. The impulse to cover the horse race at the cost of the seriousness of governance persists. In this case, if Obama’s the professor, then the press is a bunch of unruly kids who won’t calm down after recess. The election is long behind us, get back to work.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.