Obama and the "hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out" media

Monday 23 August 2010, 16:52

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

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September's Vanity Fair includes a long piece by Todd Purdum about a day in the life of the Obama Presidency. 

It's a well-argued case for the impossibility of the job. Purdum vividly describes the unmanageable confluence of pressures: the daily briefing from 16 government intelligence agencies; the fallout from party politicians intent on doing the other side down; the workload generated by the hundred-plus presidential advisers; and the impact of the $3.5 billion (£2.3 billion) spent annually by 11,000 official lobbyists (a gross underestimate of the true figure, apparently).

But Purdum gets into his stride when he describes "one of the most perverse rituals of the modern White House" - the daily press briefing. 

Obama faces "the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, trivialized, and combative media environment any president has ever experienced". And the output of these briefings? "Coverage of the presidency and politics as pure sport."

Meeting in the White House.
Part of Purdum's beef against news organisations is that they "put themselves at the centre of the story". As evidence, he cites the New York Times videoing its own daily editorial conference. As Purdum acknowledges, this initiative has been dropped. (Not interesting enough, according to our report.)

He complains about the lack of experience and trivial questions of today's White House correspondents. And he reports, with sympathy, that when the White House tries to say it's done for the day, it's often impossible to make the resolution stick: "If Sarah Palin updates her Facebook page with an attack on the president, the White House will be deluged with requests for comment."

As a piece of considered journalism in a US magazine, it'll be a welcome relief in the White House after Rolling Stone was given time by General McChrystal and his team. Indeed, this is one that White House staff will want to frame: at last, someone understands what they're up against:

"They all work punishing hours, because the entire executive branch funnels through the White House. They tolerate, cultivate, and accommodate special interests of all kinds - at once using and being used. They handle congressional prima donnas of every conceivable shade, and make backroom deals they're not proud of. They manage the press - or try to, in the shortsighted way that the press itself demands - and thus contribute to the spiral of triviality. They acknowledge all of this frankly and, by and large, without whining, as if these are simply things that must be done, and, yes, it's all worse than ever, and that's life."

So is this a White House that's punch-drunk under the pressures? Well, apparently not. Purdum says Obama is determined to ignore the media, and to have faith that sticking to what he intended to do will, in the end, win him credit with electors: "Obama's gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself."

Of course, this is the oldest defence of the beleaguered politician. But Purdam's well-sourced account of Obama's unflustered style ("the one part of the evening that is sacrosanct, if the president is in town, is dinner with his wife and daughters") builds a convincing case that he is keeping his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him.

Not all of Purdam's readers are as impressed: in a neat double-edged swipe, one comment left beneath the online version of the article concludes: "Obama is the true Vanity Fair President - glossy, empty and soon to be discarded."

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