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Obama's TV Blitz: On The Air, but Off His Game?

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.

"Are there are some people who still think through the prism of race when it comes to evaluating me and my candidacy? Absolutely. Sometimes they vote for me for that reason. Sometimes they vote against me for that reason," he told Gregory.

The decision to exclude Fox News was not a shocker, given that Obama has taken several shots at the channel and conservative host Sean Hannity in particular. Dunn says she expects the president to talk to Fox in the coming months.

"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace interviewed Obama in February, when the president spoke to five networks on a single day, and was not pleased at being excluded this time. He accused White House officials of "pettiness," telling Fox viewers, "They are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington." It may or may not be a coincidence that the Fox broadcast network declined to air Obama's fourth prime-time news conference, as well as his address to Congress on health care earlier this month.

Obama's Monday date with "The Late Show" is easy to understand, because Letterman has a different audience than a news program. But Dave's first interview with a president may not be a slam-dunk for Obama, who wound up apologizing, after a March appearance with Jay Leno, for likening his bowling efforts to the Special Olympics. Presidential attempts at humor can end in YouTube-worthy pratfalls.

Letterman also has a serious side. He pressed Obama on Iraq during a 2007 appearance, and ripped John McCain for a last-minute cancellation during the campaign.

Will Letterman be just another stop on the tour? Is the sheer frequency of Obama's appearances making each one less of an "event"? Eight days ago, when "60 Minutes" aired Kroft's third sit-down with Obama since the election, the president's comments drew far less media attention than the earlier interviews.

Still, it can be awkward for journalists to make such observations. When ABC's Jake Tapper sought comment for a story on whether the president was risking overexposure, he reported: "The White House said they would be happy to deny all of ABC News's interview requests for the president for the rest of the year. They were joking, I think."

Possibly the loudest presidential buzz last week emanated from news he did not intend to make. In off-the-record banter before his interview with CNBC's John Harwood, Obama called West a "jackass" for rushing the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and upstaging Taylor Swift's acceptance speech. Some outside news organizations were able to see the feed, and "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran reported the remark on Twitter -- and then "untweeted" it, with ABC apologizing to the White House and CNBC. Moran, though, wasn't bound by any off-the-record agreement.

TMZ soon posted the audio, and a video of the exchange made its way onto Politico, which then took it down as a journalistic courtesy to CNBC. But Obama should have realized that anything you say with a mike on is likely to reach the outside world -- and, in fact, immediately tried to rectify his mistake. "Cut the president some slack," Obama pleaded.

A president calling out a hip-hop star is always going to be hot stuff, but such unscripted moments also stand out during interviews when there is little on-the-record news, as was the case with CBNC.

Obama made clear his frustration with the media's coverage in the Sunday interviews. To Schieffer: "The 24-hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can't get enough of conflict; it's catnip to the media right now." To King: "The easiest way to get on CNN is, or Fox or any of the other stations, MSNBC, is to just say something rude and outrageous." To Stephanopoulos: "If you're just being sensible and giving people the benefit of the doubt . . . you don't get time on the nightly news."

That's a bit of an overstatement--the nightly newscasts, for instance, don't regularly feature screamers -- but in this "You lie!" age, Obama has a point. It's equally true that the president has become an eager player in this nonstop news cycle. And the more he waltzes onto every show this side of "Dancing With the Stars," the more he risks being seen as just another programming element, his words quickly fading into the electronic ether.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources," which airs during "State of the Union."

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