Spinning the News Cycle

Time and again, Obama is written off by the 24/7 press corps. Why do they keep getting it wrong?

Weeks ago, President Barack Obama played a game of basketball against Clark Kellogg, an analyst for CBS Sports and a former NBA player. The contest, a variation on the shoot-around game H-O-R-S-E, aired during the network’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament. It started badly for Obama, who quickly fell to within one missed shot of losing. Then he rallied, swishing goal after goal from beyond the 3-point line. Kellogg, meanwhile, appeared to choke. After securing his unlikely victory, the president addressed the cameras. “I guarantee you Clark missed a couple of those on purpose, but it was only because he didn’t know he was going to end up losing,” he said. “You can’t give me that kind of room.”

And that, in miniature, is the story of Obama’s relationship with the press. Time and again, he has turned up in positions that, to observers in the media, looked all but hopeless. Each time, pundits have pleaded with him to abandon his measured, methodical approach in favor of more radical measures. And each time, he has ignored their advice—and cruised to victory.

This dynamic was most pronounced during his presidential campaign, when practically every week some op-ed mandarin was advising him—always in vain—to get vicious with Hillary Clinton/John McCain/Sarah Palin. It reached its apotheosis in the run-up to the March 21 passage of his health-care bill, the Obama administration’s signal achievement so far. “When the history of President Barack Obama’s first year in office is written, scholars will try to answer this puzzling question: How did a gifted, charismatic young Democrat—who won the White House by a large margin and brought in huge Congressional majorities—manage not to enact fundamental health-care reform, a goal his party has been seeking since Truman?” That was Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman, writing in August 2009.

To paraphrase Fineman: When the history of the coverage of President Obama is written, scholars will try to answer this puzzling question: How did the press keep blowing it? The answer has a lot to do with the unwillingness or inability of journalists to see things in terms other than their own. Obama has often spoken, never approvingly, about the modern media machine and its continuous, insatiable need for fresh grist.

Last June, for instance, he grew testy when pressed for a response to the Iranian regime’s harsh put-down of democracy protests. “I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I’m not, OK?”

Since actual news events like elections and floor votes are no more frequent than they were a decade or two ago, the tendency is to fill the gaps with horse-race journalism. “There’s a consistent rush to judgment and to declare winners and losers before anything has happened, on a timetable that has nothing to do with reality,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich says. Rich is not wholly innocent. Last summer, he chided the president for insisting that managing the news cycle was not part of his job: “His White House has a duty to push back against the 24-hour news cycle, every 24 hours if necessary, when it threatens to derail his agenda, the nation’s business, or both.” He now acknowledges that he underestimated the wisdom in Obama’s stubbornness. “His defiance of the 24/7 news cycle, certainly in the case of health care, has paid off,” he says. “He’s obviously taking a certain joy in defying it.” Whether the press is confused by Obama’s mixed signals, or whether it has rendered itself institutionally incapable of thinking in terms other than the short and the shallow, it’s a fair bet that the best, most accurate prediction about the political fortunes of this president is the one you’re reading here: The media will continue to attach significance to things that he doesn’t care about, and it will continue to rush to judgment before the evidence is in. And if you don’t believe that, says the administration official, just wait until the midterms. “That’ll be the next time he’s underestimated and beaten up in the news cycle and then comes out smelling a hell of a lot better than they think.”

Suggested Next Read

Neon Green

Neon Green

When land and resource economist Josef Marlow was preparing a study about Las Vegas earlier this year, the title of his report, “Growth and Sustainability in the Las Vegas Valley,” had his colleagues in the Tucson, Ariz., office of the nonprofit Sonoran Institute shaking their heads. “People were asking whether it was an oxymoron,” he says. It’s a fair question, even for those of us who live here. His answer? “On the surface it looks like one of the most unsustainable places on the planet. But there’s a lot of stuff under the surface.”