Tuesday, March 24, 2009


It has become too easy for the media to try to make news with little context or perspective while the gullible public takes it all in and believes it. The media is leading the public, particularly those news commentators who believe that this will undermine President Obama. There is also a significant degree of pandering to the audience in order to increase ratings. They seem to believe that if the next story isn't about some even more outrageous than the AIG bonus then the audience will desert the network in droves.

Case in point: CNN has been running a headline, "Should Geithner Resign?" That is easier to make into news than, "Will Geithner's Plan to Have Government Join with Private Investors to Buy Distressed Assets from Banks Succeed?" But which one, in the end, is more important? But after today’s testimony before Congress and yesterday’s stock market run up when the Administration’s plan to buy the banks’ toxic assets, suddenly that headline disappeared. No longer is anyone calling for Geithner's head.

The latest cacophony in pundit circles comes hours after President Obama's appearance on 60 Minutes, where he cracked rueful jokes about the state of the economy and public sentiment over measures taken to save it all. The interview was pretty serious and somber, until Obama tried to lighten things up. "The only thing less popular than putting money into banks is putting money into the auto industry," he joked.

Steve Kroft, an interviewer who has had privileged access to President Obama stretching back to the start of his presidential bid, although also chuckling at the irony, questioned the cheery demeanor of a man who, at the end of a near disastrous week, should have been weighed down by the world.

"You're sitting here," Kroft said. "And you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, '... he's sitting there just making jokes about money'?"

Obama was not laughing about the problems and looked taken aback by Kroft’s statements: "No, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day. You know, sometimes my team talks about the fact that if you had said to us a year ago that - the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem - I don't think anybody would have believed it.” Obama attributed his comments to "gallows humor."

For me, it was an example of "can-you-believe-this?" type of humor, which is understandable given the enormous challenges he faces. He was chuckling at the irony of it all. Anyone with half a brain would understand this.

But the Today show led its broadcast by asking if Obama's laughter was appropriate and publications ranging from the Chicago Sun-Times to the New York Daily News focused on his laughter in describing the interview instead of the substance of the interview.

It's the second time in days an Obama appearance has gotten more attention for perceived gaffes than for the substance. For example, Kroft noted in an aside that the government will eventually recover the money AIG pays in controversial bonuses by subtracting it from the next scheduled bailout payment. So doesn't that mean that, eventually, the government will ensure its money doesn't fund these bonuses? Shouldn't that get a more attention than Obama chuckling at the irony of the position he finds himself in?

President Obama has been criticized for being too grim by painting an economic picture that further exacerbates the nation's economic doldrums. Following the calls to "lighten up," he does so, and is criticized for not taking seriously the nation's pitiful economic state. How does he strike the elusive mid-point?

This nitpicking of Obama by the media seems unrelated to anything he's actually doing, fueled by the media's need to create an attention-getting story, the need to make news ‘interesting.’ It is also fueled by a desire of Obama’s critics to find something that will dent his massive popularity.

It's an odd situation: One moment, Obama is facing pointed questions from the media about doing too much. Then, when he travels to California to drum up support for his economic programs, he gets criticized for leaving the White House when he should be working on the economy. He gets criticized for being too grim about the economy, and then gets criticized for using humor.

So is he working too much, or not enough? Is he too grim, or too light-hearted?

It is apparently easier for Obama’s critics to nitpick about a moment of laughter than to offer serious discussion of the ideas contained in the nearly half hour interview aired on 60 Minutes.