But Enough About Cairo . . .

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009 9:35 AM

President Obama's Egyptian address took place about an hour before the network morning shows started yesterday, giving them a natural lead story.

Within half an hour, though, they were all talking about Jon and Kate. Jon, it seems, had given an interview to People in which he was asked about his deteriorating marriage and said it was a "private matter." (A private matter, from a guy who puts his relationship and his eight kids on display for the reality-show cameras?)

Now I get that morning shows are a mixture of news and entertainment. Ten million people watched this cheesy TLC show last week, and Us Weekly just did its sixth straight cover story on the subject. I talked about it on my program last Sunday, roughly two weeks after I first learned who Jon and Kate Gosselin were.

But there is something striking about a president's first speech to the Muslim world and chatter about allegedly unfaithful reality-show spouses both being elements on a news program. It reflects, I suppose, our Web-surfing mentality, as we skip from Sonia Sotomayor to "Angelina Named World's Most Powerful Celebrity," from GM's bankruptcy to "Mom Accused of Duct-Taping Daughter's Boyfriend." (These are headlines from yesterday's Huffington Post, which has also been running photo spreads on "Guess the Celebrity Breast Implants.")

There have always been serious news outlets and those that traffic in entertainment and gossip. The difference now is that so many are in mashup mode, sprinkling their nutritious fare with gooey treats, lest readers and viewers change the channel or click away in search of sweeter stuff.

They roll into our lives, these previously anonymous people -- from Nadia Suleman to Carrie Prejean to Susan Boyle -- and, in the blink of an eye, fade into the obscurity from whence they came.

Maybe, in this time of war and recession, of automakers in bankruptcy and a doctor being killed in church, we need a healthy dose of comic relief. But Jon and Kate aren't even famous -- or weren't, until a dumb reality show transformed their lives, and even then not until there were allegations of infidelity. Their fame was created, in other words, by the same media machine that covers the White House and Wall Street. It will undoubtedly be fleeting, but there is always something to take its place -- particularly if that Bravo show "Real Housewives of D.C." gets off the ground.

In Salon, Heather Havrilesky has some intriguing thoughts on the nature of modern celebrity:

"These last few weeks may go down in history as the tipping point when ordinary people replaced celebrities at the pop cultural whipping post. First sextuplet parents and reality stars Jon and Kate Gosselin fell to pieces before our eyes, then Kate's brother, Kevin Kreider, made a teary-eyed appearance on 'The Early Show' to decry the fact that his nieces and nephews were being exploited and 'viewed as a commodity.'

"On Sunday night, awkward cat lady and overnight star Susan Boyle was taken to the hospital to be treated for 'exhaustion' after her loss to dance group Diversity on 'Britain's Got Talent.' Then early this week, reality dilettantes Heidi and Spencer Pratt quit 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here' (twice), but allegedly called the whole thing a 'mental fake-out to mess with the competitors' -- see also, yet another publicity stunt the likes of which formed the two-headed monster Speidi from the molten ashes of two unexceptional humans in the first place.

"But who are the victims: us or them? The digital age has allowed a ravenous worldwide mob to devour everyday folks -- stalking them with cameras, revealing their secrets -- and then spitting out their bones. Octo-Mom was a stripper! Kate Gosselin kept Jon on a $5 a day allowance! Each accidental uncelebrity wanders into our cross hairs and we treat them to the kind of scrutiny once reserved for Supreme Court justice nominees and the girlfriends of philandering politicians. While fame in the age of YouTube looks so easy and accessible that few lonely souls wish to remain anonymous, its spoils are often overlooked . . .

"Sadly, these insipid stories trickle up from the gutter to so-called legitimate news sources. Chasing diminished ad revenue, uncelebrity pap is born at Radar Online or TMZ.com, then gets picked up by the San Jose Mercury News, L.A. Times or CBS in the hopes of capturing enough page views to keep these relatively serious (and therefore doomed) news outlets afloat for another day."

I would suggest that in the age of Paris, Britney and Lindsay, the line between "legitimate" and -- what, illegitimate? -- outlets faded long ago.

Greatest Hits

Are hot-button social issues making a comeback? Time's Joe Klein says the answer is yes:

"The people directly affected by the so-called social issues -- abortion, gay marriage, racial preferences -- pale in comparison with the tens of millions who have lost their jobs and fortunes in the past year and with the global, life-and-death impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently, social issues weren't decisive in the elections of 2006 and 2008, or in the early days of the Obama administration.

"At the end of May, those issues returned with a vengeance. A doctor who specialized in the most controversial sorts of abortions was murdered in Kansas. President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, which restarted a tired debate about affirmative action. And while the blowhards have taken up their battle stations -- the leadership of the Republican Party, especially, seems to have shifted from politics to infotainment -- the terrain on these issues has shifted subtly in the past few years. (Indeed, gay marriage -- once the hottest of hot buttons -- seems to be easing toward public acceptance, as state after state approves it.) . . .

"There are civilized compromises to be made -- not always, but often -- on even the toughest social issues. We are beset by wars and economic distress, and we no longer have the luxury of ceding these discussions to demagogues and fundraising interest groups. It's time to move on."

That would be a great name for an advocacy group.

Cairo Reax

You'll have to look elsewhere for a comprehensive roundup on Obama's Egypt speech, and some on the right hated it. But some conservatives did not.

Rich Lowry: "On the whole I thought it was pretty good. . . . Yes, there were many things about which to cavil, there were missed opportunities, and he betrayed the disturbing weakness of his policy in certain key areas, Iran foremost among them. But the speech was an act of diplomacy and as such, it inevitably was going to skate over some inconvenient truths and tilt its presentation in a way to try to make it more persuasive to its target audience. Fundamentally, Obama's goal was to tell the Muslim world, 'We respect and value you, your religion and your civilization, and only ask that you don't hate us and murder us in return.' Bush tried to deliver the same message over and over again. The difference with Obama is that people might actually be willing to listen."

Ed Morrissey calls it "surprisingly good": "In most ways, it wouldn't differ from a similar speech given by any recent American President. In fact, the Cairo audience may have been a little surprised about the depth of the defense of Israel's right to exist in peace, as well as the strong denunciation of 9/11 Trutherism that has been wildly popular among Arabs, even though Osama bin Laden claimed credit long ago for the attack."

On Fox, Newt said the speech was "very powerful" and "very compelling," but that other parts were "destructive" and "harmful." At least he didn't use the word racist.

One thread in mainstream accounts is that the president is said to be taking a different approach toward Israel.

Chicago Tribune: "Obama spoke, for example, of Palestinian 'resistance' -- a word that can cast Israel as an illegitimate occupier. He drew parallels between Palestinians and the struggles of black Americans in slavery and of black South Africans during apartheid. Both references made some allies of Israel uneasy."

Washington Times: "Although Mr. Obama said the U.S. bond with Israel is 'unbreakable,' analysts pointed to subtle but significant shifts in language that indicated that Mr. Obama was not in lock step with the Israeli government on issues including Iran and Palestinian grievances . . .

"He also worried some Israel supporters by seeming to equate the Palestinian narrative of suffering after the founding of Israel in 1948 with the Jewish narrative of centuries of persecution that culminated in the Nazi massacre of 6 million Jews."

Boosting Newt and Rush

I was surprised to see the usually astute E.J. Dionne make this argument:

"A media environment that tilts to the right is obscuring what President Obama stands for and closing off political options that should be part of the public discussion.

"Yes, you read that correctly: If you doubt that there is a conservative inclination in the media, consider which arguments you hear regularly and which you don't. When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the Internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda.

"The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum. He's the guy who nominates a 'racist' to the Supreme Court (though Gingrich retreated from the word), wants to weaken America's defenses against terrorism and is proposing a massive government takeover of the private economy."

In my view, the reason the media trumpet what Newt and Rush say is that they're colorful characters who provide endless fodder for cable debates. It's true that this has a distorting effect, especially in minimizing what cautious Republican lawmakers say, as has been clear in the Sotomayor saga. But it's liberal pundits who love playing up the latest Gingrich or Limbaugh zinger as a way of demonizing them and, by extension, the GOP -- the same reason why they jump on every broadside from Dick Cheney.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen sides with E.J. on the Newt/Rush impact:

"Single-payer healthcare is considered beyond the realm of reasonable discourse. So is the notion of reducing military spending. The idea of raising taxes to improve the budget outlook is characterized as ridiculous.

"At the same time, there is ample media discussion over whether the administration's fairly centrist economic policies and the president's moderate instincts can reasonably be described as 'socialism.' "

Meanwhile, reporters pounce on her Senate questionnaire. As soon as David Souter announced his retirement, the NYT reports, "Judge Sotomayor wrote that she had 'near daily phone calls' with White House officials and was interviewed twice before being invited to the White House on May 21, when she met with Mr. Craig, the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and other aides. Then she met with Mr. Obama. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. interviewed her three days later by telephone.

"The judge's answers to the committee's questionnaire fills 172 pages, not counting copies of speeches, rulings and other supplementary material sent. Among other things, she disclosed few assets other than her home in New York. After 17 years on the federal bench, Judge Sotomayor reported having just $31,985 in cash and no stocks, bonds or securities. She has a $381,775 mortgage on her home, valued at $1 million, and owes $15,000 in dentist bills and another $15,000 in credit card bills."

Hmm. Will the Republicans bite on that one and subpoena the dentist?

East Wing Shakeup

"First lady Michelle Obama has replaced her chief of staff, Jackie Norris, with a longtime friend from Chicago, Susan Sher."

What was the problem? Michelle wasn't getting good enough press?

Gay Frustration

Now that New Hampshire has become the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, Obama's man-and-a-woman position seems more cautious than it did in 2008. And that has not gone unnoticed, Politico reports:

"President Barack Obama's promises of change are falling short for one core Democratic constituency: gays and lesbians, whose leaders say Obama's administration isn't keeping up with the times.

"Gay rights campaigners, most of them Democrats who supported Obama in November, have begun to voice their public frustration with Obama's inaction, small jokes at their community's expense and deafening silence on what they see as the signal civil rights issue of this era.

"His most important campaign promises repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the military ban on openly gay and lesbian service-members have not been fulfilled.

"And the news, which emerged quietly earlier this year, that he'd supported same-sex marriage back in 1996, then changed his mind, especially rankles. As mainstream Democratic politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) move to support same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates say that the barrier-breaking president looks increasingly odd for opposing what they see as full equality."

Andrew Sullivan cites a Gallup poll showing that almost twice as many people who personally know someone who is gay favor same-sex marriage as those who don't:

"If gays are really serious about marriage rights, they need to accelerate the process of coming out. It's not often that a minority group has this option -- African-Americans don't. But gays, like Jews, can 'pass,' and by passing, we don't even give many people the option of changing their minds and hearts by better understanding who we are, and why our relationships and families strengthen society rather than weakening it."

But the New Republic's Jonathan Chait says it may be more complicated than that:

"I suspect the linkage between knowing somebody who's gay and supporting gay marriage is not a simple case of A causes B, but a third factor causing both. Gays are probably more likely to come out if they live somewhere that's fairly liberal -- that is, the kind of place that would be more likely to support gay marriage (say, New York City). They are probably less likely to come out if they live somewhere that's conservative (say, Smalltown, Arkansas.) So people in New York are more pro-gay marriage because they're more liberal, and more likely to know gays because they're more liberal."

The French Way

At Pajamas Media, John Rosenthal questions why one of Obama's pre-speech interviews was granted to a small French channel:

"iTELE enjoys a whopping 0.8% audience-share. That's dead last among the seventeen channels . . . So why iTELE?

"Perhaps it has something to do with the interviewer, iTELE's White House correspondent Laurence Haïm . . . For if French journalists in general have abandoned any pretense to objectivity while reporting on American politics in recent years -- as has been extensively documented on blogs like No Pasarán or my Transatlantic Intelligencer -- Laurence Haïm's preferences are even more transparent than most.

"Until nabbing her interview with President Obama this week, Ms. Haïm's greatest claim to fame was to have burst into tears while announcing the re-election of his predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2004.

" 'You can, I think, see the fanaticism of these people here,' Haïm says, referring to the merrily celebrating Bush supporters behind her. 'You see the screen, you see the Fox News channel, you see the American flag, you see these people. George W. Bush is going, then, to become president again for four years.' And then, after remarking on her mounting emotions, she repeats the phrase punctuated by convulsive sobs. 'George W. Bush . . . is going to become president again . . . for four years.' "

Here is her blog, A la Maison Blanche, if you want to check out the interview and reach your own conclusion.

Firing Offense?

I quoted a post the other day from Tommy Christopher of AOL's Politics Daily. He rightly ripped Playboy for putting up a graphic piece about the author's desire to have hateful sex with 10 conservative women. After that, says the conservative Newsbusters, AOL deleted the piece, fired Christopher and refused any further mention of the article (which Playboy took down by day's end). Christopher says AOL claimed to have yanked the piece because it was too profane. No explanation so far for the firing.

Meanwhile, the same Playboy author, Guy Cimbalo, uses the B-word in attacking Michelle Malkin and says she has "mental problems." And to think I once told people I read it for the articles.

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