The Audacity of Disrespect

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.

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.


Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times.

18 thoughts on “The Audacity of Disrespect”

  1. Congratulations to Candace Sharkey, Rachel Davis, Jan Bird, Diana Ani Stokely, and Karin Rego for coming up with “funhouse mirror” as a metaphor for the media.

    Honorable mention: Greg Randolph for “kaleidoscope.” That was my original idea.

    Okay – now go read it!

  2. i’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle on the respect shown by pundits to the president, and your review of the history of the decline is accurate. it’s probably because i’m old (and i say that all too often recently – gah), but i long for a time that people voted for a person without ever once imagining what it would be like to have a beer with him – or her. and i’m smiling at obama being bashed for “going around” the media to the citizenry – the first guy who successfully did that (though not with social media or decent computer outreach) was GWB, and the washington press corps !!squealed!! when rove and W went directly to local news outlets and papers and by passed the WaPo et al. excellent piece, jaime.

  3. Every President since George Washington has tried to manipulate his image, so why not Obama. (Bush landing on the aircraft carrier with the sign “Mission Accomplished” wasn’t an attempt to craft his image, right?) As you noted a few weeks ago after Marco Rubio’s “sip of water heard round the world,” the media tends to elevate shallow trivia over meaningful information.

    Listening to O’Reilly complain about America’s “respect problem” makes me want to go look at the infamous video from early in his career when he threw a tantrum on camera.

    BTW, your comparison of our image of Presidents to a man’s fantasy of the ideal woman is very sharp.

  4. @Richard – it reminds me of a quote by Bill Cosby – “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

  5. I share your frustrations with both media coverage and every administration’s attempt to subvert the media and control the agenda. This, however, is a time-honored tradition. I really don’t have a problem with it. The lowest common denominator is an effective way to pull people in I suppose. The problem I have is that the US media doesn’t rake enough muck. Show a picture of Obama golfing with Tiger Woods next to the remains of a baby killed by a drone strike. Put in a picture of Rahm with a caption of him calling activists “retards” next to a developmentally disabled kid whose parents lost medical support. Fuck it. These vapid and tawdry stories have always been around. But they were at least mixed in with courageous editorials that kept them honest.
    Obama has been just as secretive as Bush so I think the Politico criticism is fair in that regard. A plague on both of their houses, I say. And Politico’s house as well. They offer up some quality analysis of policy, but rarely speak truth to power in any meaningful way.

  6. Elected politicians have become little more than marketers – they need to campaign and fundraise at a constant level. As such, it’s only savvy to employ the best marketing strategy at our fingertips. It ain’t right, but it’s smart. And it’s nothing new.

    Raking muck is the media’s job – and if the end result is to raise awareness and keep leaders to their rightful tasks, I say go for it. But we’ve gotten muddled down by the minutia of idiotic things that only distract from the bigger picture. We are all up in arms about Michele presenting an Academy award and Obama playing golf that we fail to get up in arms about what actually matters. Drones, education, sequester, etc.

  7. Great quote from Bill Cosby — except that when I tried to research its origins to see the context, I found out that he apparently didn’t say it.

    “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
    Author unknown; often attributed to Cosby, he actually cites this as a sound advice he once read elsewhere, in “Dr. Bill Cosby” in Ebony, Vol. 32, No. 8 (June 1977), p. 136

  8. I’m trying to get over the mixed message of treating public officials with more respect in the media versus the need for more muck raking. Bush should have known how to pronounce Nuclear and he was an idiot with no understanding of world affairs except to bully everyone on the planet. This is no time to be polite. Are we focusing on the wrong things? A lot? Yes. But the press, in general, is exceedingly polite to these arrogant bastards who have little regard for the human condition, whether abroad or even in our own country.

  9. There’s a balance – and the media is certainly being pulled in two opposing positions. Did the media do a disservice to the people during the Kennedy years by not focusing on mafia ties and sexual escapades in the Oval Office? Or did that distance allow them to put more emphasis on civil rights and Cuba? Is the media getting distracted with so much idiocy that the bigger stories are getting lost or diluted?

    I love political cartoons. They draw you in with a pictorial and make a statement. The caricatures could be interpreted as disrespectful – and I don’t have a problem with that. I’m more interested in the degeneration of the language and civil discourse at that level. When Mitt Romney felt it was okay to get in the President’s face during their town hall debate, I felt like we’ve crossed a line. I’m interested in what happened that made Mitt Romney feel entitled to act that way – where did it start, and where is it going? Most importantly, is this a good thing or are we losing something?

  10. While I understand that today’s climate dictates that one must break a story as soon as possible before the competition does, the past ten years has, in my humble opinion, shown a rapid decline of journalistic integrity.

    While a crane was dangling precariously off the roof of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, three different media outlets were all reporting completely different causes for the incident, none of which turned out to be accurate.

    Likewise, instead of focusing on the philanthropic deeds of several citizens of means, or the consequences of a sequester, or even the fact that people are STILL homeless after a hurricane that took place nearly six months ago, the media will instead cling to the latest Lindsay Lohan trial or wardrobe malfunction. This is no longer the realm of the Enquirer or Star. It’s major news outlets.

    Years ago it would be considered laughable to think that the United States President’s agenda had to compete with the likes of the Kardashians for true news coverage. Now it seems it’s the norm.

    Perhaps it’s the decline of journalistic integrity that has made people feel like it’s ok to refer to the leader of the free world as simply “Obama.”

  11. I don’t really mind when people refer to him as Obama. I do it. We said Reagan and Clinton and Bush and so forth. I wouldn’t address him directly as that, like “What’s up, Obama? How’s it hanging?” And I might be tempted to call Mr. Vice President Joe. But I’d say it with love.

  12. Alice and Jaime, re. the proper title for the President — the Associated Press Stylebook sets the rules and with some rare exceptions, mostly having to do with European royalty and certain non-Western cultures that don’t use surnames the way we do, after the initial reference people are to be referred to by their last names alone.

    This is not a matter of disrespect but rather following standard journalism practice.

    When I began working in journalism back in the 1980s, a few newspapers were still following the much older practice of using courtesy titles on second and/or subsequent reference. That meant reporters for the papers needed to find out if someone’s proper courtesy title was “Dr.,” “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss,” “Ms.” or something else. Of course, a formal title (“Sen.,” “Rep.,” “Gov.,” “Comm.,” “Ald.,” etc.) was used instead of a courtesy title if the person had a formal title.

    Only under the old rule would President Barack Obama be referred to as “President Obama” on second or subsequent reference.

  13. I despair that social media is the juggernaut that will take us all down hard. I struggle with my feelings around the Kennedy (white tower) behaviour that was once so well cloaked by the media vs. today’s politics amid social media and its implicit transparency; however, the race for the greatest amount of hits and the hope for video gone viral has led to the basest “shock” behaviour imaginable so that it’s hard to tell the turnips from the golden nuggets!

    The US is beginning to mirror the Hugo Chavez phenomenon: the less educated majority has taken the reigns, and there’s not a damn thing the intelligentsia can do about it.

  14. @Darrell – you are a wealth of information. Keep it coming! Thank you.

    @Karin – oh I think we can do something about. Can’t we?? We just have to keep up (with the Kardashians…) Okay you’re right. It;s over.

  15. @ Jaime — thank you! I’m not sure how much information a small-town reporter in the Missouri Ozarks actually has to offer anybody, but then again, Mark Twain began his career as a reporter in Missouri. A “show me” attitude is not a bad thing for a reporter to have 😉

    A great benefit of the internet is that the level of professional interaction that used to be possible only in large metro newsrooms and professional conferences is now possible via comments on forums like this. That’s a good thing because sharing knowledge helps all of us, regardless of how much or how little we have to share.

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