Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Obama in the Newsroom

The President makes an involuntary cameo appearance in this week’s episode of HBO’s “Newsroom,” announcing the death of Osama bin Laden after an hour of journalistic jockeying over the propriety of reporting events before they are officially confirmed.

Press criticism flourishes in the real White House too. After eight years of Bush/Cheney feigned disdain, Barak Obama is openly engaged in debate over how journalists shape or distort reality.

The President, reports the New York Times, is “an avid consumer of political news and commentary. But in his informal role as news media critic in chief, he developed a detailed critique of modern news coverage that he regularly expresses to those around him.”

In doing so, Obama is taking traditional Oval Office grousing to its logical next step in the Internet era by not only complaining about coverage but trying to shape it with Twitter town halls, a Google “hangout” and discussion via LinkedIn as well as the usual sit-down interviews with columnists and electronic pundits.

Yet, despite all this, he has had little success in efforts “to tell a story to the American people.” The answer may lie less in Obama’s narrative skills than the vicissitudes of journalism today.

Half a century ago at the dawn of TV, Presidents were overwhelmed by the reality that they no could longer control the public’s sense of the world through the words that described distant events. War and disorder were now seen nightly in living rooms, tearing down the wall between political and private.

JFK took a speed-reading course to devour newspapers and magazines before televised press conferences. LBJ had three network news programs on simultaneously. Nixon made aides watch, read and boil down what was being reported so he could be “informed and aware but not consumed by the news.”

Now the 24/7 flood of information is at full tide, breaking down all barriers between public and private with hard if not impossible-to-separate facts, pseudo-facts and factoids.

The loudest and least disciplined figures assail our senses with babble and body rhetoric while the media are overwhelmed in their attempts to mediate, to separate sense from nonsense.

The 2012 campaign will be over in three months, ending this season’s Citizens United gusher of lies and distortions, but little will change to feed endless material  for satire to Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Letterman and Leno.

It will only hurt when we laugh.

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