Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 3, 2009


Howard Kurtz, Washington Post - In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.

Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the company spun off from Viacom.

Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months. But network executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the current economic downturn.

The networks "absolutely" feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president: "It's an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used."

While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, "there was nothing" at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. "There hardly ever is these days, because there's so much coverage all the time."

Had Obama not answered the last question that evening -- declaring that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates at his home -- the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news. And that raises questions about whether the sessions have become mainly a vehicle for Obama to repeat familiar messages. . .

Some calls had little impact. Emanuel reached GE's Immelt, a member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, after learning that NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker was traveling. But Immelt told him that it was Zucker's decision, and a subsequent call to Zucker yielded an agreement that NBC would provide live coverage. . .

Every president exercises considerable control over his encounters with reporters, picking on selected journalists and deflecting questions he doesn't like. But Obama's discursive style has also tended to depress the news value of the sessions.

He began the last one with an eight-minute opening statement. His answer to the first question, including a follow-up, lasted more than seven minutes. All told, the lengthy responses allowed time for only 10 reporters to be recognized. And Obama's professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines.

One result: The audience is gradually dwindling. The last presser drew 24 million viewers, a significant number but a 50 percent decline from Obama's first such event in February.


Blogger Dave said...

Maybe nobody cares anymore, but these guys ultimately use the public airwaves to make money. They owe the US public this airtime; this is the nation's business and shouldn't be just relegated to C-Span. "I need to make more money" isn't a valid argument.

August 4, 2009 4:43 PM  
Blogger m said...

I don't think that the longer, "professorial" answers are the problem. I for one welcome them above the stupid sound bytes that characterized the last administration.

I posit that the problem is that people just don't believe what the politicians are saying. It is a waste of time. If you need to know the specific speakings on a topic, then transcripts and replays of the speeches/conferences are readily available on the net.

Otherwise, why spend the time trying to parse out the carefully calibrated bovine fecal matter which will soon be contradicted anyway?

August 5, 2009 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

I agree with both of you. The corps have no business claiming poverty - they get our spectrum for free afaiaa and make multiple billions from their dreck - and most politicians, including Current Resident, are believed only by the hard-of-thinking.

We need a political truth-in-advertising law.

August 5, 2009 10:48 AM  

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