Why no one should be surprised that Jay Leno asked President Obama “real” questions

August 7, 2013

The overwhelming sentiment coming out of President Obama's interview with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno can be summed up like this: "Wow, Jay really asked serious questions."

Russia, Edward Snowden and the NSA were part of the conversation. So too was the increased terror alert.  And Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects. There was relatively little "Hey how are the wife and kids" chatter that many people expected. (Leno did ask Obama how he spent his birthday; it wasn't a totally dry interview.)

No one who has watched the transformation of media -- and how politicians have learned to take advantage of those changes -- should be surprised, however.

Here's the reality: As the definition of who is a journalist has continued to expand, the line between "serious" and "fun" has blurred.  There are examples of this phenomenon everywhere: the success of BuzzFeed and the rise of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" as a primary news source for many people being the two most obvious.

As we have written before in this space, the idea that a serious journalist can't have fun is not one that's broadly held by the people who, you know, consume our journalism. Leno's interview with Obama proves that the opposite is also true; that a "fun" person can also be serious.

While we see this break from type-casting as a good thing, it also creates opportunities for politicians to exploit.

Take the Leno interview with Obama. While Leno did ask "serious" questions, he tended to couch them by dismissing those who criticize Obama and then not really following up in a way that say, the Post's Dan Balz, would.

One example. Discussing the raised terror threat, Leno asked Obama "what do you say to those cynics who say this is an overreaction to Benghazi?"  That, of course, gave President Obama a very clear sense that he was on friendly ground.

The blurred line between what is "serious journalism" and what is "entertainment" allows Obama -- and any high profile politician -- to pick his or her spots far more often than in years past.

News can be made and/or serious questions can be answered by a president on late-night television. President Obama and his team have adjusted to that fact.  Us media types need to do the same.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · August 7, 2013