100 days of the media's trivial pursuit

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

It's fitting that the foolery started right in time for Barack Obama's inauguration.

As January 20 approached, the Beltway press corps announced the new tone and tenor it had adopted for covering the incoming Democratic administration. Suddenly obsessed with trivia, while glomming onto nitpicking, gotcha-style critiques, the press corps transformed itself from its Bush-era persona in preparation for the new administration's traditional 100-day White House sprint.

Unfortunately, the Obama coverage has often featured a toxic combination of trivial pursuit with a passion for process. The results have, at times, been gruesome, with the news media obsessing over White House iPods, and fashion "showdowns," and puppies, and soft drinks, and parking lots, and condoms, and hand gestures, and gaffes, and laughs, and celebrity magazines, and teleprompters, and rounds of golf, and sleeveless dresses, on and on. The list of press inanities has grown quite long in just 100 days.

It's been distressing to watch the emergence of the media's permanent -- preferred -- state of trivial pursuit and the suddenly open assumption that trivia, often in the name of process, is just as important and noteworthy as actual news.

The trend has been impossible to escape, and even some journalists have acknowledged it. But they've suggested that it simply reflects our sped-up, lightning-fast media landscape and that new technology is forcing reporters and pundits to make instant calculations and premature political pronouncements.

Baloney. There hasn't been some sort of technological media revolution since President Bush left office in January, a revolution that's forced the Beltway press corps to act in a dramatically different, and in some cases almost unrecognizable, fashion. (Twitter existed while Bush was in office, correct?) It's just that the Beltway press corps has chosen to act in a dramatically different, and hyper-caffeinated, fashion in order to cover the new Democratic White House.

Others in the press have blamed the paucity of hard news coming from the White House, claiming that's what has forced reporters to dwell on trifling events. But that cop-out doesn't fly either, because the Obama White House is no more tight-lipped than the previous one. Yet faced with an uncooperative (Republican) White House for most of this decade, journalists didn't resort to trolling for trivia the way they do today. Indeed, the current brand of never-ending trivial pursuit represents an entirely new, and completely voluntary, media phenomenon.

The sad truth is, news pros have actually been blessed with a cacophony of larger-than-life news events and crisis moments packed into the very short time span of Obama's first 100 days, a window filled with natural drama and breaking news as the new president has scrambled to make sense of the country's economic troubles and passed monumental legislation in a historically quick manner.

But more often than not, it seems the press has spent its time wallowing in minutiae and pointless speculation. It has celebrated the mundane and chased after White House nonsense in a way I don't think we've ever seen before in modern American politics. And the tone of the coverage is without question unrecognizable when compared with the respectful media greeting Bush received during his first 100 days in office, when a blanket of calm seemed to descend on Beltway newsrooms and where a polite, distant tone for the White House was the accepted norm.

A recent Media Matters study perfectly captured the contrasting approaches [emphasis added]:

A Media Matters for America analysis of White House press briefing questions about President Obama's economic recovery package found that a significant majority of them -- 62 percent -- focused on the politics and process surrounding the plan. By contrast, the study found that in 2001, more than two-thirds of White House press briefing questions about the tax-cut package promoted by the Bush administration focused on the substance of the plan.

Process over substance, indeed.

Now, back to Inauguration Day. That's when the press, in a preview of things to come for the first 100 days, completely botched one of its first White House stories, a rather slight tale that revolved around process, in order to paint an unflattering picture of Obama.

The so-called news story at hand was the cost of Obama's inauguration and how, according to vague media calculations, the swearing-in ceremony was going to cost $160 million. That was $100 million more than Bush spent in January 2005, Fox News assured us. Plus, Obama's profligate spending came amidst a painful recession. Talk about out of touch -- read the not-very-subtle subtext of the news coverage.

CNN was amazed at how the cost of Obama's swearing-in was going to "easily shatter" all previous Inauguration Day expenses. And at the time, MSNBC claimed the cost of Obama's inauguration "dwarfs the record $42 million spent on President Bush's celebration in 2005."

But the side-by-side comparison was absurd because the Obama figure of $160 million included security costs associated with the massive event, while the Bush tab of $42 million did not. The problem with comparing those two numbers was self-evident. Yet the press did it for days and days as the inauguration approached.

In truth, the federal government spent $115 million on security for Bush's (much smaller) 2005 inauguration. So the bottom line for Bush's 2005 inauguration, including the cost of security, was $157 million, or almost exactly what the costs were expected to be for Obama's inauguration.

Yet for the press, that 2005 number did not exist during its January coverage. The number got flushed down the memory hole, because if mentioned alongside the Obama tab, then the Obama's-inauguration-is-historically-expensive story line evaporated. (Because it was not historically expensive.)

The inauguration media mess was a process story dressed up as a gotcha, built around an obvious falsehood. Not exactly the framework for smart journalism.

Sadly, that kind of hollow White House coverage was telegraphed during the 2008 presidential campaign, especially during the final months of the general-election contest, when the Beltway press shifted away from substance in favor of trivia, tactics, and process.

The Washington Post's ombudsman at the time, Deborah Howell, calculated that the paper published 1,295 horse-race stories during the campaign season, compared with just 594 issue-related entries. And by the way, Americans despised that brand of often shallow and pointless campaign journalism. According to a 2007 Harvard poll, 88 percent of people agreed that the news media focused too much on trivial rather than important issues during the early part of the marathon campaign season.*

In fact, here are a couple of examples from Obama's first 100 days that eerily correspond with the vacuous coverage we all suffered through during the campaign. For instance, back on December 4, 2007, the Democratic candidates debated in Iowa at a forum hosted by National Public Radio. The debate (sans TV cameras) was almost freakishly focused on issues, as the candidates delved into details at length. The media reaction? The debate was either ignored or mocked for being too dull. The New York Daily News dismissed it as a "snooze."

Sound familiar? It should to anyone who paid attention to the media's coverage of Obama's last prime-time news conference and how the press, often ignoring the substance of the president's answers and commentary, announced that the Q&A was borrrrring, that Obama had been too "professorial" and not sufficiently entertaining. (Because White House press conferences historically have been?) It was Obama's "tone" that the press fixated on, as reporters morphed into theater critics.

Meanwhile, remember when the press launched into a tizzy because Obama laughed during a puzzling 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft? According to The Washington Post's Mary Ann Akers, Obama's quick televised chuckle represented the "most memorable moment" of the interview. Forget the 20 minutes that Obama spent discussing the day's pressing issues. Obama had laughed, briefly, and journalists, misstating the facts, announced it had been inappropriate because Obama had laughed about the state of the U.S. economy. He was making light of economic hardship!

Except, of course, that's not what Obama did. But the press was determined to turn the trivial pursuit into a gotcha moment. That probably rang some bells for followers of Hillary Clinton, whose laugh was the subject of an insane amount of media attention during her presidential campaign (i.e. "the Cackle"). Plus, like Obama, Clinton got ambushed during a Steve Kroft 60 Minutes campaign interview when he badgered her about whether she thought Obama was a Muslim. And once again, the press rushed in to mischaracterize the exchange, just like it did with Obama's 60 Minutes laugh.

Indeed, not much has changed since campaign season. In fact, the trivial pursuits seem to have become even more pronounced. Recently grading the press' process-heavy performance under Obama, Columbia Journalism Review's Katia Bachko lamented, "The election is long behind us, get back to work." But judging from so much of the coverage, I don't think there is a "back to work" option for the press. It is what it is.

Trivial pursuits under Obama now pass as serious journalism.

*Paragraph updated.

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