By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009 8:59 AM
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.The Blitz Continues
Obama played golf with Tom Friedman yesterday. Wish I had a transcript.Pumping Up the Protest
This is an eye-opening piece of video that I and others got the other day: A Fox News producer whipping up the crowd at the 9/12 protest in D.C. so they would hoot and holler during Griff Jenkins's live shot. Talk about choreographing, not covering, the news.
"The employee is a young, relatively inexperienced associate producer who realizes she made a mistake and has been disciplined," Fox News Channel Washington Bureau Chief Bryan Boughton told the Huffington Post.Edwards and the Alibi
Remember when John Edwards went on "Nightline" last summer and said, yes, he'd been lying, yes, he'd had an affair with Rielle Hunter, but it really, truly wasn't his baby? Well, this bombshell NYT piece pretty much explodes that, saying he's considering whether to admit paternity:
"The notion that Mr. Edwards is the father has been reinforced by the account of Andrew Young, once a close aide to Mr. Edwards, who had signed an affidavit asserting that he was the father of Ms. Hunter's child.
"Mr. Young, who has since renounced that statement, has told publishers in a book proposal that Mr. Edwards knew all along that he was the child's father. He said Mr. Edwards pleaded with him to accept responsibility falsely, saying that would reduce the story to one of an aide's infidelity.
"In the proposal, which The New York Times examined, Mr. Young says that he assisted the affair by setting up private meetings between Mr. Edwards and Ms. Hunter. He wrote that Mr. Edwards once calmed an anxious Ms. Hunter by promising her that after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band."
Nice touch.Pushing Paterson
I have never, ever seen a president try to squeeze an incumbent governor like this, and then have the details leaked to the press:
"Gov. David A. Paterson defiantly vowed to run for election next year despite the White House's urging that he withdraw from the New York governor's race.
"Appearing tired and agitated as reporters crowded him at a parade in Harlem on Sunday, the governor said that he would not abandon his campaign to seek a full term."
Is it easier for someone (namely Andrew Cuomo) to challenge a black governor if a black president wants him out?
Well, New York Post columnist Fred Dicker hits the fast-forward button:
"All hail Andrew Cuomo, the de facto governor-elect of New York.
"And all pity David Paterson, now the state's de facto lame-duck governor."Race and Backlash
The media's race debate continues, with National Review's Jonah Goldberg dismissing the thing as a scam:
"Of all the poisonous, ugly, and intellectually vapid controversies ginned up in my lifetime, the current breakout of St. Vitus' Dance over the 'racist' opposition to Barack Obama may be the most egregious . . .
"In case you don't get the joke, this entire 'debate' over whether opposition to Obama's health-care reform is racist is totally, completely, and in every way conceivable an invention of the Left.
"Oh, sure, there are some racists who oppose Obama. Shocking news, that.
"And, yes, a tiny, tiny fraction of the signs at the Tea Party protests last weekend were racially insensitive. But if that's how we're going to score, then opposition to the Iraq War is anti-Semitic. After all, I saw a bunch of signs at antiwar protests that said bigoted things about Jews.
"Meanwhile, no significant conservative politician, pundit, or intellectual has said that they object to Obama's agenda because he's black. Rather, they've said they oppose his agenda for precisely the same reasons they oppose Nancy Pelosi's and Harry Reid's and Barney Frank's agendas. They stand athwart Obama yelling 'Stop!' just as they did with Clinton and Democratic presidents before him."One-Party Politics
So if health-care reform is down to the Dems plus Olympia Snowe (maybe), what does that mean for the end product? Atlantic's Megan McArdle laments the partisan turn:
"I'm reliably informed that the Democrats think they're better off doing this alone than not doing it at all, and so it has to pass. If so, it will be the first time in history that I can think of that a single party passed anything of this size -- certainly not a major new entitlement. Medicare and Social Security both had considerable Republican votes, something I don't see this time around.
"At the very least, this changes the tenor of the debate. I'm willing to bet that the Democrats start throwing the less popular provisions out of the bill. If you're going to pass a $1 trillion bill all by your lonesome, you don't want to, say, [tick] off 25% of seniors who like their Medicare Advantage, even if you and all of your fellow party members hate the program. Unfortunately, the popular bits are the expensive things. The unpopular parts are where you pay for them."
That last part is definitely true. But American Prospect's Scott Lemieux says McArdle's argument ignores history:
"Noting that Medicare and Social Security had significant Republican support is about is relevant as noting that prior to 1992 it was extremely unusual for a Democrat to win the White House without carrying Mississippi. The rather obvious difference with the current situation and the laws that McArdle cites is that parties have become aligned ideologically. Of course Medicare and Social Security had lots of Republican support: There were lots of northern liberal Republicans in Congress, whose support was often needed to counterbalance the reactionary segregationists in the Democratic caucus. In the current context, conversely, the liberal northern Republican is virtually extinct, and the few remaining ones are 1) subject to much stronger party discipline than was the case in 1937 or 1965, and 2) are more heterodox on social than fiscal matters. So thinking that the same kind of legislative coalition was viable would be silly."An Obama Whopper
Here's the anatomy of a presidential misstatement, with Lynn Sweet as your tour guide:
"After I raised questions about its accuracy, President Obama has dropped from his last two health care speeches an inaccurate reference he made about the health care travails of an Illinois man, whom Obama claimed had died after his insurance company declined to pay for his cancer treatments.
"When Obama spoke to Congress about health care reform on Sept. 9, he attempted to put a human face on his push for a provision barring insurance companies from dropping patients with pre-existing medical conditions.
"While not citing the person's name, the president said: 'One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.'
"It's just not true, which I pointed out in my Chicago Sun-Times column. I confirmed with the White House that the man Obama was referring to was Otto Raddatz, from a Chicago suburb. His insurance company did indeed yank his coverage in April 2005. But after a fight led by his sister, Peggy, an attorney and the Illinois attorney general, Raddatz got his coverage reinstated in a few weeks and never missed any needed treatments. And he did not die until Jan. 6, 2009.
"I raised questions about the Obama claim with the White House on Sept 10. The White House told me that Obama's speechwriters picked up the story from Slate and never vetted the facts independently. If they had, they would have realized that the Slate report was erroneous."
The error began with Slate's Tim Noah, who explains how it happened.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources," which airs during "State of the Union."