State of the news: Short on context, long on hype

Recently we heard Norah O’Donnell, White House correspondent of CBS News, state that President Obama has been unsuccessful in advancing his domestic agenda. The implication was that either he did not have a clear agenda or, that if he had one, he didn’t care about transitioning it from theory into action legislation. She went on to relate how Mitt Romney was blaming the president for “not getting it” and being clueless about the importance of jobs in order to jump-start the American economy.

Being a White House correspondent for one of the three big broadcast networks is not a frivolous job. If you’re going to speak about what’s going on in the White House, then you had better speak with accuracy and in context. While you’re not the president’s spokesperson, you are the spokesperson for the press secretary. In President Obama’s case, press secretary Jay Carney answers questions from reporters such as O’Donnell, and she communicates the questions and answers to the viewing public.

There are two words that lead to poor coverage. The first is self-aggrandizement. If you watch CBS’s coverage, the network will focus primarily on the questions of its own reporter. In the case of CBS, that is  O’Donnell. The other broadcast networks and cable stations follow the same technique with their own reporters. If a reporter asks a frivolous question, a bland one, or a “gotcha” one, then we the public are not going to learn anything, unless the president goes beyond the confines of the question and chooses to supersede the reporter to give real news. But since most presidents prefer to limit what they reveal to reporters and the public, this rarely happens.

The second problem is context. Frequently the reporter will present a superficial explanation of supposedly what is happening, but it is isolated from the larger picture.  O’Donnell indicated that President Obama had failed to pass his legislative agenda. It may be true that much legislation that is important to him has not become law. However, she totally failed to mention that nothing can become law without being passed by Congress. It is not President Obama’s allies who are preventing economic stimuli, extended benefits for the unemployed, and reform of financial institutions from becoming law. It is hardly a novel idea that Republicans will do anything to prevent the President from getting a legislative victory. If the president proposed a bill that clean air is healthy for our respiratory systems, Republicans would object on the grounds that he is promoting a permissive way of life.

Ms. O’Donnell and others are free to say that the president’s legislative agenda is stuck. But it is thoroughly irresponsible for her to fail to state that he has no power beyond using the bully pulpit and trying to build a 60% mandate among the American people. With 48 Republicans in the Senate out of 100, that just is not going to happen in this atmosphere.

When television broadcast news began with John Cameron Swazey on NBC, it was only fifteen minutes long. However, it seemed to contain more meaningful news in which the focus was on the news rather than the reporters, and events were placed in context. It was a major development when the nightly news was extended to thirty minutes. For years. network news   maintained the standard of the fifteen minute deliveries. However, with hype being the basis of competition among the broadcast and cable networks, the focus became to present eye-catching video and minimize explanation. This is truly a shame and seems to be a form of momentum that will be difficult to reverse. Once again, so much depends on the American people to ask for change. And once again, that is a doubtful proposition.

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.
  • Licens2kill2000

    If “pretty” meant “competent”, O’Donnell would be the best damned reporter on TV.