Part 2: The racial lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama
I'm not a reporter and I don't play one on the internet. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the media in this country is in trouble. Print media is dying, cable TV is losing subscribers and no one has figured out the formula for making money off of internet journalism. Then along comes Fox News, conservative talk radio and right wing web sites demonstrating that one way to survive is to cater to a niche market and we're off to the races.
In his seminal piece that got him kicked out of the conservative intelligentsia, David Frum wrote about the effects this was having on the Republican Party. But I'd suggest that it fits pretty well as an overall critique of our current professional media.
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.I'll leave it for you to decide when it was that the overall mission of the media went from informing the public to the bottom line of profit on the balance sheet, but the truth is that the latter is what drives an awful lot of what we see - moreso than the endless accusations about the media being either liberal or conservative.
And so in this environment, linkbait is the name of the game. On the extremes, that leads to the approach of everyone from Ann Coulter to Glenn Greenwald. The more sensational you can make your claims, the better. But it also tells you why CNN has gone back to their once-derided format of Crossfire. Even better than hysterical accusations is two sides yelling them at one another.
Now contrast that with what then-Senator Barack Obama said back in 2005 should be our goal.
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate...So what I would suggest is that the cultural lens of the media is directly in line with the goals of the Republican Party ("to chip away at the very idea of government") and at odds with President Obama's. Add to that what Jon Favreau said about the President not doing schtick well, and you begin to understand why the media so often assumes that he is remote, aloof and professorial.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
I think that the remoteness thing comes from...he doesn't do artifice well. He doesn't do schtick well, right? It goes back to that authenticity thing. He knows who he is, he believes who he is and he's not going to put on some facade just because he's supposed to glad-handle someone. He would rather actually get to know that person...talk to them, have a real conversation - not recite talking points - and enjoy that person's company.Nowhere was this dynamic more in evidence than back in 2009 when Ed Henry expressed his outrage at President Obama's slowness to outrage over Wall Street bonuses.
President Obama's insistence on knowing what he's talking about BEFORE he speaks literally does not compute with people whose only interest is in hyperbolic linkbait. As we all know by now, we're talking about "no drama Obama." It is the ultimate clash of cultures.
Of course this President's commitment to the long game is also directly at odds with the need for linkbait 24/7. What Michelle Obama said about her husband is exactly what angers so many in the media.
Here's the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.But there is yet another cultural lens that distorts the media's perception of this President. Perhaps it is the legacy of Watergate, but its hard to ignore the overall 'gottcha" nature of today's media. It has been ingrained into the whole system that every reporter/pundit must assume a cynical attitude towards presidential power. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it leaves the door open for the possibility of authenticity. But in making the assumption that all politicians are liars or con artists and our job is only to point out how, the media excludes the possibility of an authentic leader.
And in those moments when we're all sweating it, when we're worried that the bill won't pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we're playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn't happen overnight.
I would posit that we have just such a leader in President Obama. Of course that doesn't mean that I think he's perfect. The fact that I even have to write that demonstrates how our culture has absorbed the either/or binary of hero/villain. What it actually means is that he's made mistakes. But I've watched him long enough to see that his words match his deeds. So I believe what he says. I know that doesn't happen very often in politics. But the fact that so many in the media think it never happens is part of the cultural lens that distorts their perceptions.