By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009 8:39 AM
In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.
Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS Corp., the company spun off from Viacom.
Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months. But network executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the economic downturn.
The networks "absolutely" feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president: "It's an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used."
While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, "there was nothing" at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. "There hardly ever is these days, because there's so much coverage all the time."
Had Obama not answered the last question that evening -- declaring that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home -- the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news. And that raises questions about whether the sessions have become mainly a vehicle for Obama to repeat familiar messages.
Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says Obama "is at risk of overexposure" and suggests the sessions are losing their novelty.
"Every time a president holds a press conference there is potential for news to be made, as he did, probably to his regret, with his comments on the Gates case," Whitaker says. Still, he says, "we would feel better" if White House officials "were approaching us with the sense that they had something new to say, rather than that they just wanted to continue a dialogue with the American people. There are other ways of continuing that dialogue than taking up an hour of prime time."
Sarah Feinberg, Emanuel's spokeswoman, says that after press secretary Robert Gibbs heard that network officials had concerns about programming conflicts, "Rahm made a round of calls to network executives to discuss ways the White House could accommodate concerns." The upshot was that the news conference was moved up an hour, to 8 p.m. -- a boon to NBC, which had a 9 p.m. special featuring overnight British singing star Susan Boyle.
Emanuel tried to create a sense of momentum -- calling Disney's Iger last, for instance, and saying he had secured agreement from the other two networks.
Some calls had little impact. Emanuel reached GE's Immelt, a member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, after learning that NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker was traveling. But Immelt told him that it was Zucker's decision, and a subsequent call to Zucker yielded an agreement that NBC would provide live coverage.
Tensions have been building behind the scenes. Some television executives say the Bush administration informally floated possible news conference dates in advance, while Obama officials basically notify the networks of their plans. Such an approach prompted calls between White House officials and the top executives at each network, and a meeting between Gibbs and the Washington bureau chiefs.
But little changed. White House officials essentially dictated the timing when they decided to hold an evening session on the 100th day of Obama's term, and again on July 22. In that instance, network executives say, the White House announced the event on its Twitter feed less than an hour after informing them.
Since the Reagan era, when cable news was in its infancy, prime-time presidential pressers have been a relative rarity. George H.W. Bush held one in 1992, but the broadcast networks dismissed it as an election-year event and refused to carry it. The following year, when Bill Clinton held his first evening news conference, CBS and ABC stiffed him; NBC carried the first half-hour; only CNN and PBS aired the whole thing. George W. Bush held four such events in eight years.
But the networks have deemed Obama a box-office draw, featuring him on everything from "60 Minutes" to "The Tonight Show" to a 90-minute ABC town meeting on health care.
Ari Fleischer, a former Bush press secretary, says the 43rd president didn't like evening news conferences -- "he thought they became more about the reporters than about him" -- but that scheduling was crucial. Once, he says, "we scheduled something on a Thursday and NBC went crazy," because several of its hits were on that night.
"Frankly, it's commercial," Fleischer says. If it's not a big night for the networks, he says, "they put civic duty and pride first. But you don't go up against 'American Idol' -- not even Barack Obama."
Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's first White House press secretary, says ABC and CBS rejected her first prime-time request in 1993 on grounds that the press conference was "not news."
"With Obama," she says, "everyone wants to have a relationship with the president because he's been good for ratings. I've been impressed by how easily they seem to be able to roadblock an hour. No other president in TV history would have been able to do it."
The financial stakes are considerable. ABC, CBS and NBC have given up as much as $40 million in advertising revenue to carry this year's East Room events. "We lose more than $3 million a show," Moonves told Mediaweek. The Fox broadcast network has declined to carry the last two Obama sessions.
Every president exercises considerable control over his encounters with reporters, picking on selected journalists and deflecting questions he doesn't like. But Obama's discursive style has also tended to depress the news value of the sessions.
He began the last one with an eight-minute opening statement. His answer to the first question, including a follow-up, lasted more than seven minutes. All told, the lengthy responses allowed time for only 10 reporters to be recognized. And Obama's professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines.
One result: The audience is gradually dwindling. The last presser drew 24 million viewers, a significant number but a 50 percent decline from Obama's first such event in February.
The lingering question is how much of an obligation the networks have to carry these news conferences, given that they're widely available on the cable news channels.
One of the broadcast networks could demonstrate its independence, Friedman says, by breaking with the pack and refusing to air Obama's next prime-time extravaganza. But, he says, "that would take an extraordinary amount of courage."Toxic In-Box
The reason, she wrote last week, was that it was among a steady stream of "baldly racist" messages she received after opining on the Harvard professor's arrest, and was an "anonymous rant," to boot. The message from Officer Justin Barrett "didn't even stand out" until the Boston Herald disclosed the e-mail, which Barrett also sent to friends.
"When somebody begins with insults, racial epithets, or both, I hit the delete button," Abraham wrote. "I might have gotten as far as that first reference comparing Gates to a 'banana-eating jungle monkey.' I didn't make it to the part where he calls me a fool and an infidel."Getting Tipsy
Tabloid headline writers usually come up with better puns than everyone else, but they were flat after the much-hyped White House beer summit:
"BREW-HAHA" -- Friday's New York Post
"BREW-HAHA" -- Friday's Daily NewsHigh-Speed President
Listening in on a Peter Hart focus group, Slate's John Dickerson hears the following:
" 'We've found out he's not Superman,' said Obama voter Nora Seeley, 54, a dental hygienist, when asked what she had learned about him in the last six months. 'He's on a fast train,' said Seeley. 'Things aren't being considered.' Nearly everyone echoed this sentiment. 'Slow down,' said Alex Chambers, a 27-year-old teacher, when asked to give the president advice. 'The speed that he's doing things -- it's a little bit of a gamble,' said Tim Polen, a 24-year-old student. Many worried that by moving too quickly--particularly on health care -- Obama was going to make the situation worse. . . .
"If the members of the focus group wanted Obama to slow down, that doesn't mean they want to see less of him. Repeatedly, they said they liked hearing from the president and approved of the way he explained things. When asked to say what helped shape their views about Obama -- they were given a list of 15 factors, such as giving the military the go-ahead to shoot the Somali pirates, his family life, and his proposed overhaul of health care -- seven of the 12 picked 'press conferences and town-hall sessions around the country.' It was the most popular factor."
The reporters also vote for more news conferences -- but, as stated above, ABC, CBS and NBC don't want them to be in prime time.
In National Review, Rich Lowry says Obama's problem is both speed and direction:
"Hubris made him reach for too much, too soon; brazenly overpromise about the effects of his program; overestimate his control of events; think the golden touch of his brilliant team could solve intractable problems; and believe his words could trump reality . . . What Obama needs is a little modesty . . .
"He could have taken steps to address the financial crisis -- basically continuing the Bush program, as he has -- and pursued a genuinely bipartisan stimulus . . .
"He could have followed up the stimulus with incremental health reforms -- say, new insurance regulation and subsidies for the uninsured -- in a continuation of the salami-slice approach to health care that has been so successful for Democrats. Again, he'd have gotten substantial Republican support. At the six-month mark, he'd have a few important, if not sweeping, legislative accomplishments; he'd have avoided all of the liabilities of his stimulus and health-care proposal; and he would have split the Republican party. He'd own the center."
But he wouldn't have delivered what he promised in the campaign. And the last president didn't seem terribly interested in steering toward the center.Stop Making Things Up?
The blog AlaskaReport says flatly that Sarah and Todd Palin are divorcing -- which her spokeswoman denied on Facebook -- and the mainstream media don't touch it. The denial, naturally, drew some attention online. I heard about the story and the knockdown on Twitter. (And no, the person who wrote the post isn't a CNN stringer, as was claimed on my show yesterday.)Early Warning
Best thing I've seen in the Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson book "The Battle for America": A 2006 memo from David Axelrod, telling Obama: "I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty." Obama also recalls Ax telling him he might be too normal to run for president.Boosting the Birthers
Who is pushing this craziness? At the Daily Beast, Max Blumenthal tracks her down:
"Almost as soon as Orly Taitz answered her cellphone, before I could even ask a single question, the leader of the movement determined to disprove President Obama's American citizenship breathlessly told me the president was 'connected' to 39 bogus Social Security numbers, including one for a deceased person born in 1890. 'If Obama is not stopped, we will be in Nazi Germany!' "
So nice when everyone engages in reasonable rhetoric.
"Taitz, who has a thick Russian accent, shrieked. 'Forgery is a criminal matter and he committed it. Obama should be in the Big House, not the White House!'
"Since Taitz's 'birther' campaign began, in the summer of 2008, during the late stages of the Democratic primaries, the dentist, lawyer, and mother of three has begun winning friends in high places. Taitz told me excitedly that since she opened her Facebook account, she has had to hire a staff of five to process the thousands of friend requests she receives each week.
"Among those requesting her online friendship, Taitz said, are House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA), and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. She has even received a request, she said, from someone saying they are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu . . .
"Among Taitz's 'biggest supporters,' she said, is CNN anchor Lou Dobbs. 'I did Lou's radio show for half an hour and he was very understanding,' she told me. 'He became a supporter and since then he became a supporter of the whole [Obama eligibility] issue.' Indeed, during the July 15 broadcast of Dobbs' radio show, he praised Taitz's work, suggested Obama might be 'undocumented,' and demanded the president 'show the documents' to prove he was born in the United States."
HuffPost notes a poll suggesting all this is having an impact:
"Less than half of Republicans believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, a new public opinion poll finds.
"Only 42 percent of Republican respondents in a Research 2000 survey, conducted for the liberal website Daily Kos, said they thought Obama was a natural born citizen; 28 percent said they did not believe Obama was born in the United States; 30 percent said they were not sure."Huffington and Health
In Salon, Rahul Parikh looks at some of the health prescriptions on Arianna's site, including this one for swine flu: "deep-cleansing enemas."
"The Huffington Post is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the Internet these days. It operates mostly as a news aggregation site (it has featured Salon stories) and throws open its doors to a wide range of bloggers, who cover everything from politics to entertainment. "When it comes to health and wellness issues, our goal is to provide a diverse forum for a reasoned discussion of issues of interest and importance to our readers," Arianna Huffington, the site's namesake founder, author, socialite and pundit, told me.
"I would like to believe her. But when it comes to health and wellness, that diverse forum seems defined mostly by bloggers who are friends of Huffington or those who mirror her own advocacy of alternative medicine, described in her books and in many magazine profiles of her. Among others, the site has given a forum to Oprah Winfrey's women's health guru, Christiane Northrup, who believes women develop thyroid disease due to an inability to assert themselves; Deepak Chopra, who mashes up medicine and religion into self-help books and PBS infomercials; and countless others pitching cures that range from herbs to blood electrification to ozonated water to energy scans . . .
"Practically since its inception in 2005, the Post's health coverage has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism from physicians and medical experts. Steve Novella and David Gorski, both academic physicians, who run the blog Science-Based Medicine, have been at the forefront of the opprobrium. In a post this April, Novella declared that Huffington Post readers were being 'fed demonstrable medical falsehoods and misinformation.' "That's Not The Way It Was
The NYT ombudsman on Alessandra Stanley's eight-error appreciation of Cronkite -- what one editor called "the equivalent of a car crash" -- and how it happened.