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

Tagged with:

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."

Tagged with:


Jump to comments pagination

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts

The profits of unpaid journalism

Thursday 19 August 2010, 17:24

Bangkok blames the international media

Wednesday 25 August 2010, 12:01

About this Blog

A blog for the College of Journalism at the BBC Academy, discussing current technical, ethical, production and craft issues in journalism.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?

Follow us on Twitter

New twitter image News and comment about journalism and interaction with the College:


Also from the College

Esra Dogramaci

Web analytics: The Basics by BBC digital consultant Esra Dogramaci


Mukul Devichand

How to be a digital innovator by Mukul Devichand, creator and series producer of BBC Trending


Writing for mobile

Writing for mobile by BBC mobile editor Nathalie Malinarich


James Montgomery

Leading innnovation in news by BBC News director of digital publishing James Montgomery


Other great places to follow debates about journalism and media:

George Brock: thoughts on journalism past, present and future from City University's head of journalism

The Media Blog: lively and often funny topical detail about UK media output

British Journalism Review: selected pieces from the authoritative quarterly journal

MediaShift: PBS monitoring of the changing media world from a US perspective

Arts & Letters Daily: more interesting ideas and good writing than you will ever have time to read

Alltop Journalism: links to the most recent posts on many journalism blogs

About the BBC: varied BBC blog about all things BBC-ish

Columbia Journalism Review: US academic perspectives

Facebook + Journalists: Facebook's own guide to its use by journalists

Jon Slattery: UK media news from the former deputy editor of Press Gazette

Meeja Law: Judith Townend's guide to media and legal issues 

Roy Greenslade: Guardian blog by the former Mirror editor now journalism prof

Wannabee Hacks: information and experiences from aspiring journalists.