One Year Later: The President and the TV Press

By Alissa Krinsky 

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“There’s a difference between governing,” says media critic Jane Hall, “and getting elected.”

One year ago today, Pres. Barack Obama began to govern — and the nets and cablers started covering his administration.

So how have they done?

“I think many reporters in the White House press corps have been asking tough questions,” says Hall, an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication and a former Fox News contributor. “I think Obama’s getting more scrutiny out of the gate certainly than [George W.] Bush did, because of 9/11.”

Hall cites ABC’s Jake Tapper as a particularly assertive questioner. “[I]n some ways [he] looks to me as if he’s taken on some of the Sam Donaldson-David Gregory role” in the White House press briefing room.

Overall, tvnewsers “have been more rigorous in their coverage [of Obama] than they were during the campaign,” says Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson, co-founder of The Daily Caller. “Some kind of hangover, breakup — pick your metaphor — is inevitable. The love affair was so intense between the press and Obama the candidate…The expectations were always unsustainable.”

But as Carlson and Hall speak about “the press”, they caution that their generalizations are just that. No two news organizations are the same. And on cable, there’s daytime journalism versus nighttime punditry.

Hall and Carlson stress the importance of in-depth news coverage in our democracy. Reporting “what the actual news is”, says Carlson. Including health care reform. Hall says tvnewsers “have tried very hard to bring this [story] to the American people.”

But then there are the Wall Street bailouts. “A lot of people out in the country are madder about this than may have seeped in” to the coverage, she says.

On the whole, Carlson sees a bleak journalistic picture on his television. “The central role of the press is to explain what powerful people are doing. And they’ve fallen down. That’s pretty basic…This administration is doing a lot. The problem is there’s just not enough coverage.”

Today’s complex issues are not necessarily TV-friendly. And then there’s what Hall calls “a function of resources.”

“There are fewer people covering news now,” Carlson says. “It’s been an unfortunate coincidence that the news business has started to collapse, and reporters have started to get laid off in large numbers, exactly at the moment when there’s more than ever to cover.”

There has not, though, been a shortage of cable punditry during the President’s first year. And Hall is concerned at what she sees as a predominance of voices from the right. “I think there should be a broader range of opinion — including more people from the progressive left of the spectrum — on issues like health care, the war in Afghanistan, and the Wall Street bailouts.”

She’s also unhappy with “the blurring between opinion and news…Noise from the pundits has led to a lot of confusion.”

Carlson says clarity comes when members of the press ask “tough, uncompromising questions, and [demand] responses to those questions”, regardless of the administration’s political affiliation. “And anyone who’s not doing that is failing, is doing the bidding of those in power, and that’s wrong.

“Keep in mind that this guy is just a President. He’s not Jesus,” Carlson continues. “He works for us.”