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Recipe for disaster: When the media's big story spills over from day to day

Over 60 miles deep into the Gulf of Mexico, BP's front line of defense against the oil spill relies on controlled burnings of the leaked crude.

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Do you think you have seen that gull before? You don't suppose the TV news folks are recycling oily birds from the Exxon Valdez disaster, do you? Or that they have video files bulging with stock pathetic pelicans, glum inky crabs and sad-sack oysters?

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Coverage of the BP oil spill has certainly reached marathon status, the kind of thing still likely to lead on the evening newscasts -- so likely that the networks risk evoking "oh not that again" reactions from viewers. It's an unhappy fact of TV news life: the bigger the story's significance, the longer it rules the newscasts -- and the greater the danger the public will tune out.

To keep the story interesting -- and thus fertilizing to the Nielsens -- TV news turns it into another story, or several other stories, with the gulf spill reduced to background, the same way pictures of oil-covered water become mere backdrops to the shocked correspondents who speak feverishly in the foreground. And so it is, too, that the spill has become another chapter in the Saga O'bama, with yet more scorekeeping of how the president is doing, and what impression he is making in this impression-crazed culture.

There's a subtle racial angle, of course; isn't the fixation prompted by Obama's status as the first president of color enough to inspire the mostly white press corps to scrutinize him unduly, including his vernacular? He said "the A-word!"

So it is that Obama this week made his fourth trip to the gulf, dragging the media along, and so it is, also, that Tuesday night he will address the nation. What will it accomplish? It's not as if Obama is going to stick in his thumb and plug the leak himself. But it's a ritual he's compelled to perform, lest he appear to lack sufficient concern, a ritual that George W. Bush helped establish by failing to do it quickly enough. Bush's disastrous performance after Hurricane Katrina carried the invisible cautionary sign, "Future Presidents Take Note."

Such rituals may have little to do with the main story -- the environmental nightmare -- but much to do with the sidebar: Can Obama win back the media smarties who seem to be deserting him?

One of the unkinder peripheral ironies of a calamity like this one: The longer it goes on, the more likely public outrage will turn to jejune ennui -- what infuriated people when they first learned of it has devolved into a pesky inconvenience; of course, this is only true of those experiencing it vicariously -- even if on high-def TV.

People who experience it that way, which is not really experiencing it at all, might stop seeing it as a menace to the environment and begin to view it as -- mad though it sounds -- an impertinence that disrupts their escapist TV-viewing. As such reaction escalates, blame shifts from the company that should have prevented the spill to the media companies whose employees dutifully report on its virulent persistence.

At some stage, Ghastly Pelican No. 204, or some poor gull or fish gone stinky as well as inky (the oil smells bad, correspondents have told us, even as they brave the malodorous gunk in their dry-cleaned jeans), serves as the tipping point at which outrage and umbrage give way to a world-weary sense of futility. We've seen it before in other long-running disasters, including the trend-setting Iranian hostage crisis -- the one that started the genre and turned seldom-seen correspondent Ted Koppel into the Mr. Marathon of network anchors.

Now we're seeing it again. It gets less pretty with each new exposure, and that's about as pretty as poor little Oily McDuck. The media will grade and judge Obama according to how well he comes across, applying the standards of a performance to his gesture, as if "gesture" is all it could possibly be.

"Have we all gone crazy?" CNN's Fareed Zakaria asks in the Huffington Post, presumably rhetorically. Zakaria finds the preoccupation with "presidential emotion" to be borderline obscene and fundamentally absurd. Thousands of lives and livelihoods are threatened by an ecological nightmare-come-true, and the press wants to know whether the president is shedding real tears or the crocodile kind. It's a kind of crock, all right, and a sign that when the public starts to show lack of interest in a story, and the press goes hunting for a new angle, even hero-worshiped presidents had better watch their tails.

It's another dilemma faced by a people living in a media-refracted and media-saturated environment, especially one that has seen a population explosion of information sources that hustle and scramble for our attention, then deploy the techniques of showmanship to keep us engaged and to battle the ever-threatening enemy. They see their enemy not as ignorance but as ennui, and they see their challenge not as spreading knowledge but as preventing you from getting restless and, God forbid, changing the channel.

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