Obama rewarding local stations in key states with biggest ‘get’ in TV news

March 27, 2011

Ever since he quit smoking, President Obama has been staving off nicotine cravings by reaching for celery sticks.

He thinks Americans who help Mexican drug cartels should be “thrown in jail.”

And he has an open invitation to enjoy lemon martinis in Miami.

These are just a few of the exclusive news nuggets to emerge from the White House in recent days.

The new details were not disclosed by the army of White House reporters employed by the country’s biggest news media organizations to track Obama’s every move and word.

Instead, as Obama keeps the White House press corps at a distance, he has sat for more than a dozen interviews with their colleagues from local TV stations — with unpredictable and sometimes illuminating results.

One Miami reporter Obama recently invited to the White House was still so nervous when the interview was over that she stood to leave before removing the wired microphone from her lapel. Obama called out to stop her. “We don’t want a wardrobe malfunction,” he said.

An anchor from the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati swiped paper towels embossed with the presidential seal from a White House bathroom, “just to prove that I really was there.” Of course, she had additional proof of her visit: an interview with the president that aired on television. Nonetheless, she held up the towels for the camera in a live shot from the White House lawn.

A veteran anchor from Philadelphia’s ABC station used the opportunity to grill an irritated-sounding Obama on the hot topic of the day, telling the president his statements on U.S. military action in Libya had been confusing.

Obama has made such encounters with local news stations a staple of his communications strategy. Since December, White House aides have handpicked 13 stations, all in key cities in presidential battleground states, to reward with the biggest “get” in the TV news business: a one-on-one White House interview with the president. An additional interview was granted to Hearst Television’s Washington bureau, which serves more than two dozen local stations across the country.

Seven-minute allotment

Each reporter is granted seven minutes with the commander in chief.

In March alone, Obama has welcomed interviewers from Charlotte, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque and Norfolk. Before that, invitees came from Richmond, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Tampa, Denver, Des Moines and Columbus. And aides say more are coming soon.

In some cases, Obama had a message he wanted to send directly to the people in particular states. It was during a Feb. 16 interview with the Milwaukee station that the public first learned of Obama’s view that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was launching an “assault” on public-sector unions.

He told the Miami reporter that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) was “wrong” to cancel plans for a federally backed high-speed train in the state.

The Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stations made news when Obama told them that state lawmakers should be leery of adopting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed education cuts.

Such statements might have been overlooked by White House reporters focused on the churn of Washington news. There was no chance of that happening with the local reporters, whose stations promote these presidential interviews as major news events, sometimes parceled out over several days.

Miami Fox affiliate WSVN led off its 10 p.m. newscast March 18 with anchor Lynn Martinez’s interview with Obama. As images of the presidential seal, the White House and Obama flashed across the screen and dramatic music played, a baritone announcer declared: “Just ONE Florida station . . . Invited to the WHITE House . . . Face to face with the commander in chief . . . With the questions South Florida wants answered . . . A 7 News EXCLUSIVE . . . One on one with President Barack Obama.”

The interviews, which take place in the White House Map Room — a less formal setting than the Oval Office — have allowed Obama a chance to show his lighter side. He seemed uncharacteristically delighted to discuss his former smoking habit, chuckling when Hearst’s Sally Kidd asked whether the stress of his job “ever makes you want to pick up a cigarette.”

Obama said he wanted to set a good example and didn’t want to be dishonest with his daughters. “It’s not easy,” he confided. “There are certainly days where I’ve got to grab a lot of celery sticks to make up for that bad habit I gave up.”

He later told Norfolk’s WVEC that quitting smoking was worth the effort. “Michelle’s a lot happier,” he said, “and when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.”

But if the president expected to play host to a cadre of pliant, star-struck locals ready to do his bidding, he has found instead that many of the reporters and anchors have come ready to make the most of their seven minutes.

Unexpected queries

For one thing, they don’t follow the usual Washington routine of asking predictable questions that often elicit scripted responses. In anticipation of the interview, some stations asked their viewers what questions they would like the president to answer.

As a result, Obama has fielded a number of unexpected queries and has sometimes responded more frankly than national TV viewers might see in a formal news conference.

In his interview with Denver’s KUSA, Obama conceded that many Americans who had hoped he would change Washington have been disappointed in his record so far.

“I don’t think there’s a sense that I’ve been successful,” he said.

Carol Williams, an anchor at WCPO in Cincinnati, opened her interview with a searing question.

“Mr. President, you have two young daughters, and I have a 19-year-old daughter myself,” Williams said. “What kind of debt and what kind of future will they face if you and Congress don’t reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?”

Jim Gardner, the silver-haired 62-year-old anchor on Philadelphia’s WPVI, ignored warnings from White House aides that the president would refuse to engage on Libya. Obama had just delivered remarks announcing that U.S. forces would mobilize with a mission to help protect civilians in that country. Gardner opened the conversation by telling Obama, “I am a little confused after your speech today about the goal of the potential military intervention.”

Obama was clearly displeased: “As was already mentioned to you, I’m not going to comment beyond the statement that I made today.”

The president will elaborate on his Libya policy in an address Monday night — 10 days after the exchange with Gardner — and in one-on-one encounters with network news anchors Tuesday during a trip to New York City.

A White House official said many of the local stations had been chosen for interviews because they were market leaders or because their reporters had previously interviewed administration officials and had a relationship with the press office.

Past presidents, including George W. Bush, also granted access to local stations, particularly during campaign season. Several reporters and producers said those interviews often took place via satellite or when the president visited their cities — and that their stations were caught off guard by the invitations to sit with Obama in the White House.

At WSOC in Charlotte, the call came from a White House press office staffer to a senior producer on March 15 — three days before the interview. The president, the station was told, wanted to discuss his upcoming trip to Latin America and how it might lead to more jobs for North Carolina.

The invitation set off a mad rush within the station, as managers decided to send one of their young star anchors, Natalie Pasquarella, and then set out planning on two tracks — the substance of the interview and then how to publicize it.

Knowing the tight time frame for the interview, executives said they carefully mapped out questions, word for word, timing them to the second (and hoping that Obama would not deliver long-winded responses).

“We had to make every second count,” said Kim Holt, a senior executive producer at the station.

The group decided that every question would relate to Charlotte. They wouldn’t bother with questions about Libya and Japan — that’s what all the Washington reporters were asking about.

Spurred on by a White House press release that highlighted a local company, Rhino Assembly, for its expansions of exports to Brazil over the past year, the station sent a crew to the firm in advance. The company was featured in the interview package , and the president was able to cite Rhino as a success story. It was good PR for the White House — the president was on his way to Brazil hours later — and a nice touch for a station looking for the local angle.

That night, WSOC’s publicity department worked overtime to produce an ad promoting the interview, which aired the following Monday.

“We threw everything we had at this,” Holt said. “It was a very, very big deal.”

Three into one

Martinez, the Miami anchor, seemed to squeeze three interviews into one.

She had been on vacation in Washington that week visiting her sister when her station called with two days’ notice to prepare for the interview.

After cramming with help from her sister and her colleagues back in Miami, Martinez posed some hard-nosed questions — including one about why the federal loan-modification program hasn’t helped more people in South Florida’s devastated housing market.

Obama acknowledged that the resources available weren’t enough. “We’re putting a lot of gravel in a hole that’s bigger than the amount of gravel that we have,” he told her.

Martinez’s station is known more for glitzy, fast-paced newscasts than substantive policy discussions. And Martinez, who co-anchors a frothy entertainment show each night, needed more out of the president. So, as the final seconds of her time slot counted down, Martinez made an offer to the president: When he visits Miami next month for a commencement address, “you’ll have to also stop by my house — because I make a mean lemon martini.”

“You’re a good bartender?” asked a surprised-sounding president.

“I can only make one drink,” Martinez replied. “But the lemon martini’s really good.”

Obama said he might take her up on the offer — but after the speech. “It sounds like it might be a little strong,” he said.

The following week, Martinez was still squeezing material out of her brief interview. She aired a bloopers reel of her encounter with Obama. With “Hail to the Chief” spliced in as an intro, Martinez showed herself struggling to attach her microphone to her blouse as Obama looked on. “I grope myself and bring it up under my bra,” she narrates. Then, showing it again in slow motion, she adds: “I’m reaching into my chest in front of the president of the United States.”

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