National media tackles tough questions: When to schedule Obama’s speech?

1 Sep

I’ve never been fond of long discussions about what newsrooms shouldn’t be covering. Let’s get to everything we can, and let readers tune out or ignore what they don’t find relevant to them.

I don’t typically get pissed off listening to National Public Radio.

And while doubting its overall contribution to society, I am a personal follower of the kind of “horse race journalism” that smart people such as Jay Rosen decry. Give me Politico and polling numbers 24-7. I am a political process junkie.

But this morning was an exception on all of those counts.

On my morning commute, I suffered through a lengthy (for broadcast format) NPR piece all about how President Obama wanted to speak before Congress about his new jobs plan next Wednesday, but House Speaker John Boehner wanted the speech to be held on Thursday, presumably because a long-scheduled and nationally televised Republican primary presidential debate was scheduled for the same night. And how the Obama administration didn’t want to have the speech on Thursday because it conflicts with the first game of the NFL season.

I kept waiting, waiting … waiting for there to be more to the story than that, but there wasn’t. And not a mention of the potential substance of a jobs plan, or the reason the president needs to have one. And then the issue was raised two more times during my commute … apparently as a core part of NPR’s periodical news headlines update for the morning.

I’m understanding more and more why Rosen is so focused on the horse race journalism question and why he believes it is so bad for our country.

Of course, it gets into a chicken-and-egg conversation. Does the media behave this way because the audience is yearning for it, or does the audience feed into it because the media is behaving this way? The Politico story on the speech scheduling flap, as of 9:30 a.m., had 1,995 comments from readers.

2 Responses to “National media tackles tough questions: When to schedule Obama’s speech?”

  1. Anna Tarkov September 1, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Matt, I’ve long thought about the same chicken and egg question. While I think both the media and audience exert pressures on each other to some degree, I tend to fall on the side of the media being the overall instigator. It’s just simple supply and demand in my opinion. If horse-race political journalism is 99% of what is supplied, then it will be 99% of what is consumed, right? The audience simply has no other choice in terms of mass media (which is to say there is a fair amount of non-horse race stuff out there on blogs and such, but obviously they obviously don’t have the audience of a CNN or FOX or Politico).

    I think this holds true in most cases really, not just political journalism. So often I hear journalists lament, well, that’s what the public wants. Kitten videos and slideshows. Oh no, they don’t want serious news. They want to be entertained. While all that may be true, we have to look at what created that environment to begin with and what perpetuates it. I don’t believe anyone woke up one morning and pined to see kittens on their newspaper’s website on their own. But when they saw them there (and if they like kittens), they were of course pleased and entertained. And of course it’s easier to look at kittens than try to understand a complex story. So instead of working harder to explain complex issues to their audiences, much of the media just decided to give them kittens. In doing so, they abdicated their responsibility. They trained the public repeatedly to expect fun and entertainment in the news and now they’re complaining that they don’t pay attention to the serious stuff? Cry me a river.

    (Kittens by the way are somewhat being used as a stand-in here for any kind of fairly useless, easy to produce, fluff content. For the record, I fully believe in the ability of a news org to, if they so choose, to offer kittens side by side with serious journalism.)

    And yes, this is absolutely bad for our country. As you well know I’m sure, our rates of even the most basic civic participation, voting, are dismally low as compared to other developed nations. Why? There are of course a multitude of reasons, but one of the most commonly cited seems to be the fact that people don’t feel informed enough to make an educated decision. Who is in the business of informing them? Yep, us journalists and we are demonstrably failing at it whether it’s the horse-race nature of campaign coverage or any number of other issues I feel exist with political/civic journalism.

    In my estimation, people fall into three categories: the political junkies, the ones who consume political news, but can’t make heads or tails of what they’re being told and the the ones who are tuned out of it completely. That last group is, I think, vast as the low voter turnout and other measures suggest. And yet there is a near zero effort on the part of the media to reach them. Why should they, they probably reason, since the first two groups provide enough of an audience? Again, I can’t see this as anything other than a wholesale abdication of journalistic duty and it’s sickening.

  2. Steve Frye (@stevefrye) September 1, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    I too found this story frustrating, mostly because it’s avoidable.

    All day long we schedule meetings, events, conference calls around other people’s schedules, and if we now resort to listening to reports on the inability of leaders to schedule meetings, then perhaps all hope is lost on anyone in a leadership role working together towards any sort of substantial improvement of country or economy.

    Again, too, it’s the NFL that’s part of the story. They resolved their labor dispute before the debt ceiling compromise could be reached and now their first game (on schedule due to resolved labor dispute) apparently could have kept president from talking to Congress.

    I do think the audience likes the winner-loser approach to political storytelling, fitting again that the NFL if involved. That fact that nothing gets done gets lost in the story of who wins or loses the scheduling game.

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