Entry from June 2, 2009

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson had this to say about the media’s relationship to the Obama administration:

The Obama infatuation is a great unreported story of our time. Has any recent president basked in so much favorable media coverage? Well, maybe John Kennedy for a moment, but no president since. On the whole, this is not healthy for America. Our political system works best when a president faces checks on his power. But the main checks on Obama are modest. They come from congressional Democrats, who largely share his goals if not always his means. The leaderless and confused Republicans don”t provide effective opposition. And the press — on domestic, if not foreign, policy — has so far largely abdicated its role as skeptical observer. Obama has inspired a collective fawning. What started in the campaign (the chief victim was Hillary Clinton, not John McCain) has continued, as a study by the Pew Research Center”s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows. It concludes: “President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House.”

So why is this? Here is Mr Samuelson’s explanation:

Most journalists like Obama; they admire his command of language; he’s a relief after Bush; they agree with his agenda (so it never occurs to them to question basic premises); and they don”t want to see the first African American president fail. . . The press has become Obama’s silent ally and seems in a state of denial. But the story goes untold: Unsurprisingly, the study of all the favorable coverage received little coverage.

All this may well be true, and yet it doesn’t quite take the measure of the phenomenon of the media’s Obamolatry. Yes, they love him, yes they agree with him and, yes, they want him to succeed. But what they love more than they love him or his policies or his race is the fact that he promises them a new era of hip, celebrity politics in which the White House beat can be covered the same way that Hollywood is now. All the moral questions have been resolved in the right way, so what’s left, apart from gossip? What the new president promises is an end to serious controversy and therefore to politics as it has always existed in the past. In this way, as in so many others, he represents the fulfilment of the promise of the Clinton and Bush administrations for, so far as the media were concerned, serious controversy ended then — controversy, that is, about real political issues and ideas rather than trumped-up moral melodramas of one sort or another.

When Newsweek famously wrote, within a week or two of Mr Obama’s taking office, that “We Are All Socialists Now,” what it really meant was that we are all Obamites now. The media don’t love him because he proposes socialistic policies so much as they love the socialistic policies because he proposes them. And he is good. Though the media still love a fight, it now has to be presented as a fight between good guys and bad guys, not between two parties both of whom have something important to say. And, of course, everybody knows who the good guys are. Just as President Bush was always a bad guy, so President Obama must be always on a good guy. If there is little or no negative reporting about him it is because all such reporting would have to fit in with The Obama Story, and The Obama Story is one of the triumph of good over evil and so has no room for negativity.

I come back again, too, to the Obama campaign theme vs. John McCain: namely, that he “just doesn’t get it.” This always implied a form of cognitive superiority, but less in terms of analytical intelligence than what also goes under the name of “street smarts.” For being a celebrity also means being hip, and not to “get it” really means not to be one of the in-crowd — to be relegated to what used to be called, in the days of a different sort of class discrimination, “uncouth.” Those who thought it odd that President Obama and his spokesmen should have lashed out at Rush Limbaugh in their early months in office should see this as typical and the real point of contact between him and the media. Together they conspire to rule people in and out, separating the sheep from the goats. The political world is now much more closely circumscribed than ever before, and “opposition” leaders are being forced to disavow those, like Mr Limbaugh, whom the cool people have decided are beyond the pale of decency. That, like celebrity-worship, is one of the consequences of a moralized politics.

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