A recent Politico article claimed that Obama is the “puppet master,” controlling the media in unprecedented ways by limiting press contact, eschewing interviews, and releasing information directly to the masses via social media, which they accuse him of being “obsessed with.” All this leads to a crafted and manipulated image.
And it just isn’t fair.
Indeed, the Obama administration does seem to keep America on a need-to-know basis, with an attitude that seems to say, “Uh, look. I‘ve got it all under control. You don’t need to know what I’m doing, just trust that I’ve got this.” I don’t even think Michele would be cool with that kind of policy. But I wonder if Obama’s distrust of the media might be warranted and that his use of social media is, I don’t know, actually democratic. Politico is incredulous that the President would go straight to the people with his message, instead of through the funhouse mirror of the media. Well, why is that?
Let’s consider the golf game that everyone is making such a ruckus about. It seems silly to be all up in arms about a golf game between the President of the United States and pro Tiger Woods. But what the media sees is yet another example of denied access to the President, who will in turn release staged photographs of the outing, carefully shot to show his good side, or a pensive moment that we can interpret in a larger context, as in, Obama kneeling on the green, concentrating on his putt. The public thinks “This is a guy who makes careful deliberations on anything from foreign policy to immigration.” What we won’t see is Obama patting Tiger on the ass after a particularly long drive, which could be interpreted as “black” or indicative of anything from homosexuality to socialism to civil rights.
If the press is going to publicly bitch about – I kid you not – “golf-gate,” then they should take this time for some self-examination. There is a line between the integrity of the fourth estate – taking a President to task and revealing his true character and abilities to the public in a responsible way – and what has become entertainment news, where everything is fair game and respect for the highest office is disposable. The President is not Octomom, yet beginning in the Clinton nineties, the media has done little to distinguish between the two in channels like gonzo radio and fluff journalism.
From primary season onward, a Presidential candidate has the impossible task of needing to be not just all things to all people, but very specific things to very specific and different types of people. We need an intellectual who can hold his own in a debate, and the causal dude we could share a beer with; an Ivy-league educated scholar, who hasn’t the nerve to attach himself to elitism; we need a Commander in Chief, but we need him to exercise justice cautiously. He is like the man’s fantasy of the perfect woman: a lady in public, but a whore in the bedroom.
In office, he is elevated to a level where he ceases to be a man, but a President, for whom we rise when he enters the room, accompanied by Hail to the Chief at every juncture. But in the 90s, when Survivor brought reality television to the people, and news became entertainment, a new generation was brewing. Monica Lewinsky recognized the man in the suit in the Oval Office, and flashed the thong that will forever live in infamy.
What separates Bill Clinton’s indiscretions from any President who came before him, Kennedy as the most obvious example, is not only the blood thirst with which he was hunted, but the casualness that it wrought.
Let’s consider the coverage of President Kennedy versus President Clinton. Kennedy has the luxury of having been assassinated, and is thus elevated to American martyr. His flaws are airbrushed to reveal a royal portrait. Yet if we consider what we knew when he was alive, and what we have learned since, the picture grows less refined. Affairs – many, and not well hidden. Mafia ties. Shady connections. Health problems hidden from the public, questionable medication.
Fast forward to Bill Clinton, hunted, demeaned, impeached. Bill Clinton is no martyr – he did wrong, had sexually reprehensible behavior. And was brought to task. But this administration knocked down the walls of integrity like no other. The indignation of the media was always ridiculous – with every sex scandal, they are shocked, dismayed, incredulous. Really? But they also raised disrespect for the oval office to a new level, despite the fact that Clinton’s indiscretions were fewer and less blatant than Kennedy’s.
So what gives?
It might be the culture of on air radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh who saw dollar signs in scandals and eager listeners whose ears perked at the audacity of disrespect. It seemed rebellious at the time. Brave, even, and it kept Limbaugh in divorces and painkillers for the next twenty years.
The Bush era continued the trend. The President was depicted as a moron, a big-eared, wide eyed idiotic puppet, when he was merely a cowardly, overly simplistic, dangerous, religious zealot. The media latched on to his mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” and his patriotic photo ops, and called him out on his depth of understanding concerning foreign policy. In fact, the notion that “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” was so lacking in nuance that Fox, launched during the Clinton years, needed to double down on its twenty-four hour propaganda for GOP damage control. Yet what every station reporting the news at that time had in common was a casualness about how the President was depicted.
What was once pomp and circumstance and a certain reverence is now fodder for the Twitter generation. What was highbrow has been brought so low as to make Representative Joe Wilson comfortable enough to burst out, “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech on healthcare without even prefacing it with a “Mr. President.” We can argue about whether Senator McCain’s reference to then candidate Obama as “that one,” was only racist, but I’d argue that it was more: it was an example the framing of the highest office on the planet as a job for any Joe. Decorum has left the building; John Boehner has taken to advising Harry Reid to “go fuck [him]self,” during fiscal cliff negotiations, which still hasn’t topped then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s address to liberal activists as “fucking retarded,” in a strategy meeting because they planned to launch ads attacking conservative democrats.
Bill O’Reilly recently had a show where he focused on an urban Hispanic girl who mouthed off to a judge and received a 30 day jail sentence as a result. From there, he jumped to “America has a respect problem!” to “public schools are to blame” because they’ve softened punishments from the strict comeuppance of the distant past. It’s a bit rich, coming from someone in the media who has made a living off of racist, demeaning, and highly disrespectful commentary. Bill O’Reilly’s audience accounts for more than three million nightly viewers who tune in to watch segments like “Pinheads and Patriots.” Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that there is a “Lack of Respect Epidemic” brings me back to that commercial in the 80s, he one with the kid with the basketball, urging parents to talk to their kids about drugs. “I learned it from watching you, Dad!”
That his program is right-leaning is not an issue in and of itself, or the fact that he airs from Fox. Jon Stewart broadcasts from the left on Comedy Central, and has been known to bring to task the people he credits for the devolving of respect, both for higher office and for the climate of conversation in the country. Just as he’d lampooned CNN’s Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as hurtful to the electorate by not taking their jobs as CNN reporters who owe their audiences authentic debate as “a responsibility to the public discourse,” but rather producers of “theater,” he similarly chastised MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for using “teabagger,” as a derogatory term.
We can argue about whether the news should be entertaining or if our entertainment could provide enlightenment, but until that is resolved, President Obama is going to take control of his own image.
Until we give “that one” the respect the highest office in the whole frigging world rightfully deserves.