Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on President Obama's Media Blitz

(Pete Souza - Via Bloomberg)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

The White House doesn't buy the notion that President Obama, who appeared on five talk shows Sunday and is heading next for David Letterman's couch, could be wearing out his welcome on the tube.

Sure, this is a president who has dissected basketball brackets on ESPN, gone for burgers with Brian Williams, showed Steve Kroft his swing set, dissed Kanye West (off the record) with CNBC and ordered a general to shave Stephen Colbert's head. By that standard, Obama's Sunday blitz was a mere throat-clearing that, as it turned out, produced little in the way of big news. And some journalists -- even as they continue to clamor for access -- say he is diluting the product.

"It's simple," explains White House communications director Anita Dunn. "In an increasingly fragmented audience that gets information from a number of different sources, putting a huge amount of his time behind one medium increases our ability to really break through and get a message out. The effect of one interview, given how rapidly the news environment moves, doesn't last as long as it used to."

The president could have made major headlines just by appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" or CBS's "Face the Nation" or ABC's "This Week" or CNN's "State of the Union." (He threw in Univision's "Al Punto," or "To the Point," while notably excluding "Fox News Sunday.") So was the full Ginsburg -- so named for the five-show sweep by Monica Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg -- really necessary?

The Sunday hosts, at least, were excited about the rare opportunity. "Anytime is a good time to interview the president," says "Meet the Press" host David Gregory. "We're here to get news," says "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. But sharing the same guest -- even the world's top newsmaker -- makes it harder for them to distinguish their programs.

"I'm not happy he's appearing on four other shows -- I just don't like that very much," Schieffer says. As for the succession of 15-minute tapings at the White House on Friday, he jokes: "It's kind of like going to Dunkin Donuts: You take a number and they call you when they're ready."

Gregory says, "We all fight that instinct" when one guest wants to do multiple shows. "Obviously he wants to make as big a splash as he can," the host says of the president. "They've made a determination that he is the go-to guy in terms of being the messenger. When the pressure is on, he wants the ball."

So did Obama score?

While the White House plan was for Obama to focus primarily on health care and Afghanistan, he broke no new ground on either subject, repeating points he has made many times. Some topics varied -- "State of the Union" host John King asked about North Korea; "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos asked about the ACORN scandal -- but the game plans were strikingly similar.

The first clips released by the networks -- and picked up in news stories -- showed the hosts were especially interested in a subject the president has been trying to avoid. They all asked about the recent chatter that some of his critics are motivated by racism. And Obama's answers took on a certain sameness.

"Are there some people who don't like me because of my race? I'm sure there are. Are there some people who voted for me only because of my race? There are probably some of those, too," Obama told Stephanopoulos.

"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are," he told King.

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