Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
George W. Bush was a pro-media president. You wouldn’t think so, from the way that he head-locked the press, cherry-picked crowds for public events, and limited his press conferences to near-zero for years.
He was a figure though, that media wags could sink their teeth into, sometimes literally. The functionally-illiterate speakifying style, the gaffes great and small, and the thin skin that roasted under the broiler that was Stephen Colbert at a press dinner made “W” a guy with traction.
By contrast Barack Obama, who was swept into the White House in part as the anti-Bush, is not easily goaded by the press. He earned the nickname “No Drama Obama” during the campaign, and irritatingly for the National and D.C. news media, he still wants to keep it that way.
The media, from Nixon to W. has been accustomed to pressuring the White House into reacting to the agenda that is usually set by the Sunday tongue-wagging programs and the daily spinning classes on CNN and Fox.
Yet, for the most part, the Obama Administration does not take the bait when the White House press corps ratchet up the rhetoric on the public option, or “transparency.”
The Bobby Jindal moment, during last week’s town hall event in New Orleans, was missed by most Americans because the evening rinse and spin cycle of the network and cable news shows don’t think civility sells.
POTUS (XM/Sirius), C-Span and YouTube are the few places where you could have seen it.
Obama always introduces the VIPs at most events that he attends. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (R), who has been one of the more vocal opponents of the President, and is considered to be a GOP contender for the office in 2012, was roundly booed by native New Orleaneans attending the town hall.
Obama responded flawlessly:
“It is so good to see all of you. I’ve got a couple of — (applause) — I’ve got some special, special folks who are with us here today, so I just want to make sure that I announce them all. First of all, I want to thank Chancellor Tim Ryan and all of the staff here at the University of New Orleans for their outstanding work. (Applause.) I want to thank the governor of the great state of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who is here. (Applause.) No, no, I like — Bobby is doing a good job.AUDIENCE: Booo…
OBAMA: Hey, hey. Hold on a second. Bobby, if it makes… Hold on… Bobby, first of all, if it makes you feel any better, I get that all the time.
And the second point is that even though we have our differences politically, one thing I will say is this person is working hard on behalf of the state
And you’ve got to give people credit for working hard. (Applause.) He’s a hard working man.”
Obama did what we in the media had all criticized John McCain and Sarah Palin for clearly not doing during the campaign. He did not let the crowd disrespect the Governor of the state.
Sure, it would have been easy to let the crowd eat alive one of your political opponents. It would have made Jindal look like the “bad” guy.
You also can safely assume that, given the turned tables, Jindal, fearing Republican backlash for national spotlight civility of any kind with “the enemy,” even though his office has praised the Obama Administration’s assistance for his state, would not return the favor.
You don’t have to paint a black hat on your political opponents to make your partisans see your white hat, though. Obama takes almost Jedi-like peace in being engaged in conflict without letting his emotions or any hard personal feelings infect his public persona.
In that brief, and almost forgotten moment defending Jindal from the crowd, he defined again the kind of statesmanship and strength of character that was largely what carried him into office, and demonstrated that irritating even-handedness that so irks media wags
The media handled the moment by either ignoring it, spinning it, or finding a more high-conflict portion of the event to emphasize, like the criticism of government by one town hall participant, or the little boy who asked Obama why people hate him.
A sampling of the interpretive journalism from the event:
Andrew Malcolm, Los Angeles Times:Noting all the officials present, Obama pointed to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. And when the crowd began booing, Obama almost said he liked the Republican.
But then he likely envisioned the likely video clip come 2012 of the Democrat praising the possible GOP contender. And the president changed mid-sentence to say Jindal was doing a good job.
Actually Andrew, he did say that he liked “the Republican,” and anyone who heard the full speech would wonder the next time that they read your work in the Times how much spin that next piece will have.
Michael D. Shear, Boston Globe:Obama received a warm and raucous welcome from the crowd, which booed loudly when the president introduced Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and again when he introduced Democratic mayor, C. Ray Nagin.
“You guys are a feisty crowd,” the president cracked.
Shear does the selected highlights of the moment to reshape it, bypassing President Obama’s gesture of civility entirely.
Margaret Talev, McClatchy Newspapers:They booed Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and gave a partial boo to Mayor Ray Nagin.
“This is a feisty crowd,” Obama said. He defended Jindal, saying that despite political differences, “this person’s working hard on behalf of the state.”
Better, but still a far cry from what really transpired.
The media has an addiction to political gridlock. All of that infantile posturing, name-calling, and baiting leaves Washington journalists drooling, and sells soap and beer and cars.
Everyone criticizes the scream-fire-in-a-crowded-theater theatrics of a Sarah Palin, but you know damn well that we will go all William Randolph Hearst to get the latest from her, or Joe the Freaking Plumber, or Al Sharpton, or Jessie Jackson.
The media has reacted to Obama’s centrism with taunts that he is not “tough enough.” It is polite code for him not being “newsworthy” enough. The ratings are flat-lining. We need the Democratic Ronald Reagan, the tough-talking marshal in town, cleaning up the corrupt Congress, and solving every problem instantly with a waive of his hand.
Obama even scolded the media’s press for instant answers in his New Orleans town hall:
Now, just in case any of you were wondering, I never thought any of this was going to be easy.(Laughter.)
You know, I listen to — sometimes — these reporters on the news, “Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?”
“Why — it’s been nine months. Why –?” You know? I never said it was going to be easy.
What did I say during the campaign? I said is change is hard. And big change is harder. And after the last nine months, you know I wasn’t kidding.
I wasn’t kidding about it being hard. But you notice I wasn’t kidding… I don’t quit. We get this stuff done. We keep on going until we get it done. I don’t quit.
Let me tell you, those folks who are trying to stand in the way of progress? They’re all… Let me tell you, I’m just getting started. I don’t quit.
I’m not tired. I’m just getting started. I’m just getting started.
We’ve become junkies of the comment-arsonists: Limbaugh, Coulter, Beck, O’Reilly, Hannity. It’s bad enough when they spin things wildly out of control without any kind of reasonable research. They fill our time, and give us grist to endorse or rail against.
Fox and CNN beat each other up for that ratings rush, getting their Nielsen Jones.
Print reporters throw good journalistic practice on to the bonfires of corporate publishing, to appease the efficiency and performance Gods of the newspaper business, and keep them from emptying office cubicles by lobbing a few sensationalist tidbits instead of news.
Sacrifice a few more trees and drop their ink-stained carcasses on suburban driveways, and maybe, just maybe the HR person won’t be talking to me about exit packages, or just plain o’l pink-slipping them.
There is a business in news, but when it becomes a news business, and that business wants results at any cost, the modern newspaper and television station run the real danger of becoming to news what WWE wrestling is to sports.
The media spends far too much time trying to make the story rather than cover it. The plethora of platforms from which puny politicians and petty pundits can preach, prognosticate and prevaricate leave us with more noise and roto-tiller ads, and less enlightenment.
Tell the damn story the way that it happened.
Reporters are going to have to suffer through Obama’s unbearable civility and good nature. Just grit your teeth at his unflappability.
Most of all make sure, when these positive moments like the Jindal save come along, that you can appreciate the olive branch as much as you feel the need to light up the kindling wood and stir up a good pot of political controversy.