Obama, Gates and the Media's Sparkly New Thing

Update: Tapper has been defending himself and the coverage of the issue on his Twitter feed. He makes some good and fair points, particularly this one: “You can’t judge our [ABC’s] coverage of health-care reform on ONE story.”

It happens a lot: someone gives a press conference to talk about various big issues, and the thing that gets the most attention on TV the next morning is reply to a tangential question. The coverage takes the form of sentence-parsing, taking a particular word that was used and debating what it meant. In this case, Obama’s health-care press conference last night prompted very little discussion about health care, and lots about his comment that the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates.

James Poniewozik has a very good post about why one off-the-cuff comment got so much more coverage than the actual policy stuff. It boils down to three things:

1) Health care has been covered for weeks now and it’s boring. The Gates comment is something new. As ABC’s Jake Tapper (one of the great bi-partisan hacks of our time) put it, “it’s the NEWs not the OLDs.” In other words, once something has been in the news for a while, it’s no longer important, or at least interesting.

2) Obama’s comment on Gates, being off-the-cuff and mildly controversial, was more interesting than his repetition of his previous health-care talking points.

3) The Gates comment is really about big issues that are important to people, and therefore the coverage is not a distraction from anything at all. This is Tapper’s argument, which he made at one point with his patented brand of self-justifying self-righteousness: “funny, media gets hammered (rightly) for often avoiding topic of race in US…and yet…” In other words, the U.S. TV talkers shouldn’t be criticized for turning the entire morning’s coverage into a discussion of one adjective; they should be congratulated for finally covering the topic that those mean liberals wanted them to cover all along.

An additional reason is that the U.S. media is very sensitive to charges that they’re too favourable to Obama (they were not similarly sentitive to equally justified charges that they were too favourable to Bush in 2002-3, but never mind) and by changing the subject to something he didn’t plan on, they prove that he’s not controlling their agenda. In other words, the President called this press conference so we would cover what he wants, but we’re instead going to cover what we want.

Whether it would have helped or hurt the President if they’d covered his health-care statements, I don’t know, and that’s hardly the point (obviously, whether the media is doing its job has nothing to do with whether its coverage helps or hurts the President). But the instant switch in focus demonstrates once again the extent to which the Washington-based media — the “Villagers” as they’re often called these days for their insularity — treats everything as kind of a game. A press conference is a game: if the President makes a gaffe or says something that can be read as controversial, he loses and the networks win. Issues are valuable primarily for their novelty, at least the way Jake Tapper sees it.

U.S. political coverage, especially on TV, sometimes seems like it’s done by people who are bored with issues — since they’re not personally affected by most of them — and assume the audience is equally bored. This, incidentally, may help explain why Rush Limbaugh and some of the Fox News pundits are so popular: their shows frequently focus heavily on real issues. Limbaugh certainly doesn’t think his audience is bored with the health-care issue; he thinks that they’re really interested in opposing Obama’s health-care plan and they want to hear every day about why it’s evil and socialistic. (Of course, he’ll also presumably be talking today about how Obama hates cops and is in league with Gates to destroy America, so there’s a place for that too.) It’s odd that Jake Tapper frequently gives the public less credit than Limbaugh or Hannity do.

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