Mere hours after the Gridiron Dinner -- an annual gathering of the political press in which everyone soberly bonds over their concern for the state of the world and offers the plucky and trembling Ed Henry advice on being a newsman -- President Barack Obama appeared on 60 Minutes for an interview with Steve Kroft, and while the session, to the untrained eye, might have looked like a ranging and substantive interview, media figures with more discernment and savvy saw it for what it was: Obama laughing at the hardships of America, forever and ever.
And so, as the keepers of the public trust, they grimly went to work, warning America about Obama's reckless demonstration of "emotion" and "brief levity" and "humor," because HOW DARE HE. What sort of rat bastard President would force the cast of MSNBC's commedia dell'arte show Morning Joe suspend their pleasing lazzi, about sex toys -- the important issues of the day -- to discuss his loathesome laughter! In this new video by Media Matters, you can see just how this important topic was relentlessly pursued, like the icy grip of death.
In retrospect, we should have posted odds going into Obama's press conference on the likelihood that the next day the press would make the press--not necessarily Obama--a big part of the story. And let me tell you, those would have been pretty good odds.
So no, we're not surprised that CNN's Ed Henry has written at cnn.com a first-person, insider account of his brief, and frankly uneventful, "back-and-forth" with Obama from Tuesday night. (Or Henry's "incoherent barrage of mostly pointless/redundant questions," as Gawker put it.)
CNN Headline: "Behind the scenes: Ed Henry's take on exchange with Obama." (Isn't the "behind the scenes" part priceless? Very VH1, we think.)
The piece is all about Henry's pre-debate "strategy" regarding which "provocative" question he was going to ask, and how he wanted to "make news" that night. See this Politico piece from earlier this week, which glorifies the pre-game stretching and warm-ups WH scribes now do before press conferences and how we're supposed to actually care what goes into reporters forming and crafting their rather ordinary White House queries.
Still, it doesn't get much more cringe-worthy than this, from Henry:
The pressure was on now because the president had called on me. Someone handed me a microphone, millions were watching, and it's scary to think about changing topic in a split second because you might get flustered and screw up.
Good God, isn't it his job to ask questions at White House press conferences? It wasn't like somebody suddenly asked Henry to jump out of an airplane Tuesday night.
UPDATE: We almost forgot the best/worst part from Henry's incestuous diary entry:
But on Tuesday night, as I sat in the front row nervously reviewing my hypothetical questions written out in longhand (decidedly old school), I kept thinking back to a conversation I had with Wolf Blitzer Saturday night at the Gridiron dinner.
I'm not sure how many thousands of questions have been asked over the years at White House press briefings, but I would suggest NBC's Chuck Todd may have recently asked one of the most inane.
The history-making moment unfolded in the White House press room on January 23, when the topic open for questioning was President Obama's proposed economic stimulus package and whether the administration, which was hoping for a bipartisan effort on the legislation, would be disappointed if the bill passed with little Republican support. And that's when Todd asked if Obama would veto his own bill if it didn't garner enough Republican votes.
It's hard to imagine that a reporter for an elite news outlet, operating at the pinnacle of his profession as a White House correspondent, would ever ask that question; would ask if a president would take the step of vetoing his own legislation because not enough politicians from the opposition party had voted in favor of it.
It's only March and already Todd has uncorked two monumentally dumb questions on TV. Let's hope he doesn't go for the trifecta any time soon.
Earlier this week, former Laura Bush press secretary Andrew Malcolm used his Los Angeles Times blog to play up tax troubles of various Democrats. Malcolm's hook was a homestead exemption claimed by California congressman Pete Stark on a home he owns in Maryland; his post was titled "So does Democrat Pete Stark represent California or Maryland?"
Malcolm's focus wasn't the local angle, it was Stark's party affiliation, and Malcolm went out of his way to stress the number of Democrats who have had recent tax controversies. Here's Malcolm (bold added):
So does Democrat Pete Stark represent California or Maryland?
Oh-oh, looks like more tax troubles for another Democrat in Washington.
California's Rep. Pete Stark, a senior House Democrat who helps write the nation's tax laws, has been claiming a $1.7 million Maryland home as his principal residence in recent years, although he represents the Golden State's 13th District on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
Now in his 19th congressional term, the liberal Democrat and one of several Californians in House leadership under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, confirmed that he and his wife Deborah are indeed not registered to vote in Maryland.
He is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Although much recent congressional attention has focused on corporate bonuses in New York, taxes seem to be the problem de la saison for Washington Democrats this winter.
Timothy Geithner had to pay thousands in back taxes before his confirmation as President Obama's secretary of the Treasury. Ex-Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name as secretary of Health and Human Services after revelations that he had paid $140,000 in back taxes and penalties on unreported benefits.
Nancy Kelleher, who was to be chief performance review officer for the new administration, also withdrew her name over a back-tax issue.
Another California Democrat, Rep. Hilda Solis, was confirmed as Obama's secretary of Labor when her husband paid up some 16 years of back local tax liens.
Earlier this month another Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, had his similar Maryland state tax disallowed by officials for the same reasons, his home there not really being his principal residence.
Seems it was pretty important to Andrew Malcolm that you understand that Democrats have been involved in tax controversies.
So when Roll Call reported this morning that four House Republicans have been receiving the Washington, DC homestead tax exemption, I figured Malcolm would be all over it. After all, his interest in the Stark story clearly wasn't that Stark is from California; that wasn't his focus nearly as much as Stark's party affiliation.
The Roll Call report was given wider attention by Politico, and by The Frontrunner, but Andrew Malcolm has ignored it.
Now, why would Laura Bush's former press secretary Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm so eagerly tout a story about a Democratic congressman claiming a homestead exemption in Maryland while ignoring a story about four Republican congressmen claiming homestead exemptions in DC?
Politico editor and co-founder John Harris muses about his publication's role and future in CJR. Unless I'm missing something, there are a couple of concepts he pretty much ignores: focusing on what's important, and getting the story right.
There is, however, a lot about "driving the conversation" and "building franchises" and appealing to advertising.
It's like they're handing out training wheels over there.
Today Rep. Paul Ryan appeared on CNBC to discuss Obama's proposed budget and to hype the (unseen) Republican alternative:
We're going to go in a completely different direction, and show the American people how we would do things much, much differently to restore growth and confidence to our economy, keep the American economy growing, and not switch over to a Europeanized type of economy.
The reaction from the CNBC's guest co-host, Fred Malek, founder of Thayer Capital Partners?
Paul, that gives me a lot of confidence, what you said. I think you're absolutely going in the right direction.
And CNBC corporate boss Jeff Zucker wonders why the channel remains a prime target for criticism?
Just a follow-up to Tuesday night's item about the CNBC report which bemoaned the fact that those poor television networks were going to lose millions of dollars in ad revenue because they had to air Obama's primetime press conference.
We already noted the absurdity of throwing a pity party for TV execs who last night simply had to perform a rare public function in exchange for free use of the public airwaves. But the whole TV-lost-millions-in-revenue premise is also annoying because it's pure fantasy. And because CNBC played its viewers for rubes.
Its report suggested that because the nets had to televise Obama, they couldn't air the TV commercials that had already been purchased for that one-hour time slot. And technically, that's accurate. But the notion that networks automatically lost that ad money just isn't true. That's not how the business works because television advertising is not a zero sum game.
Combined, networks control more than one hundred hours of primetime programming each week. Obviously, if some ads get bumped for breaking news (i.e. a White House press conference), networks have the ability to air a those handful of lost ad slots on other programs, just as networks have done for decades. Think about it. Do you really think that when networks break into programming for hurricane coverage, or whatever, that the next day their ad salesmen start writing checks to Procter & Gamble and Budweiser and State Farm because their ads didn't run the previous day? That's simply not how the television business functions.
Networks do sometimes, very reluctantly, hand out free spots to* advertisers if the nets' entertainment programming, over many weeks and months, fails to live up to the ratings rate that the commercials were purchased on. (They're called make goods.) And in that case, yes, nets can lose millions in advertising. But to suggest, as CNBC did, that because of a single White House presser, the networks automatically lost every ad dollar from the commercials that didn't run last night is pretty misleading.
*Changed original wording to reflect point raised by reader.
How? By suggesting Obama is becoming something of a chameleon who reinvents himself depending on the political setting. The press spent most of 2000 depicting candidate Gore as somebody who was so unsure of his own political skin that he was constantly 'reinventing' himself.
Basically, that Gore was a phony.
Now check out the headline to the Times' article on the press conference: "In a Volatile Time, Obama Strikes a New Tone."
See, it's a new tone; a new approach. It's a new, different Obama. The Times leans heavily on that approach in the lead:
For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.
Instead, according to the Times, what we got "was the professor in chief."
Note how the Times stressed that Obama last night was completely different than the Obama who addressed Congress just one month ago. Back then Obama was a "fiery and inspirational speaker." The Times considers this to be newsworthy.
First of all, it seems self-evident that presidents communicate differently when addressing the nation with a prepared speech before Congress (or on a TV talk show), than they do when answering questions extemporaneously at a press conference. Second, it seems self-evident that there's nothing wrong with presidents communicating differently in different situations. But the Times seems to think it's a big deal Obama acted one way at the press conference and another way in his Congressional debate. That Obama wasn't fiery.
But was Obama really "fiery" when he addressed Congress in February? That's not how we remember his rather somber address to the nation. So we went back and read the Times' next-day article about Obama's speech (Headline: "Amid Gloom, Obama Pledges Recovery"). And guess what, according to the Times, Obama wasn't "fiery," or anything even approaching that.
It's only now, when trying to hype the idea that Obama is changing his tone (reinventing himself?), that the Times retroactively claims Obama was "fiery" in February and professorial in March.
Todd Gitlin at TPMCafe offers up the context by looking back at a February, 2001 presser and how scribes covered it. Notes Gitlin:
But at least when George W. Bush stood tall in the White House we didn't have any of that persnickety, fussy, lugubrious, pompous, professor stuff, and the nation's watchdogs fidgety students weren't bored out of their gourds "waiting for the ring of the bell."