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The Warped Estate

Richard Nixon’s “Checker’s Speech,” September 23, 1952

First hand access to the daily life of President Obama has become the new hot ticket among political journalists. Americans have four more years of Democratic leadership. Correspondingly, they want to know more about thee somewhat shadowy figure pulling the strings inside the Oval Office. Just what is the Commander-in-Chief up to?

Results have been mixed. Brian Williams chose the angle of fellow traveler on the campaign trail fairing on NBC’s “Rock Center.” From his travels, we garnered little, save for the fact that modern politicians fly quite a great deal.

Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair, added a piece of his own. Like Williams, much of the focus seemingly whiffed at a pitch that others might have taken a harder swing at.

For instance, the Moneyball and Blind Side author spends an extended period of time covering Obama’s Spartan taste in furniture. He then documents Obama’s well-covered love of basketball in great detail. However, to say that his was nothing more than a puff piece undersells it. Indeed, there were some highly interesting moments to note. One in particular stuck out.

The scene is as follows: Lewis and Obama are travelling aboard Air Force One. The President’s preferred TV channel, ESPN, plays in the background. An unwitting aide enters the room and switches from sports to a cable news outlet.

After listening for a few moments, the President responds: “Oh, so that’s why I did it.” He then walks out of the room. His abrupt exit is notable given that he had woken Lewis just moments before claiming he had time to spare for the interview.

The episode is indicative of what many on the staff see as a common trend within the White House. The President feels that cable news is “generally toxic,” and spends little if any time watching it.

When you consider that Obama is perhaps, more so than anyone, the focus of most TV news programs, that point is telling. The President apparently prefers five daily newspapers and an assortment of webpages to the country’s three major cable news outlets.  

It did not always used to be this way. Some may remember Vice Presidential candidate Nixon’s famous “Checkers Speech” in 1952. The publicized interview came in the wake of an apparent campaign finance scandal. In response, Nixon went on air with both his wife and dog, Checkers, in hand to proclaim his innocence.

The ploy worked. Audiences related to the humanism of the personal appeal. The rest is history. 

The juxtaposition of that experience to today’s reality underscores an important point. The paradigm in government-media relations has shifted.  

At its inception, the televised press often served as an agenda-advancing instrument among the political elite. Fast-forward sixty years and politicians are the instruments while cable news is the puppet master.

In large part, leaders have lost the ability to control the course of news. Instead, they simply do their best to manage the limelight while avoiding any negative fallout.

By itself, that may come across as a net positive.

This is a Republic after all. Surely, office-seekers know what they are signing up for. If they did not expect a certain degree of invasiveness, maybe they should have picked a different business.

However, it is not that simple. Unfortunately, the renewed emphasis on journalistic independence has come at the cost of increased subjectivity. Further, it has propelled invasiveness to the point of absurdity.

For the media, the line between public and personal life becomes ever thinner. Certainly, Americans need a watchdog to protect their best interests. However, things may have gone a bit too far. What happens when the watchdog makes the idea of public life so unappealing as to repel the best and brightest of the next generation?

Further, the new system in which each news outlet serves its own agenda causes depravation in more ways than one.  Voters do not get both sides of the story. In addition, viewers can seek out only those ideas that reinforce, rather than challenge their opinions. The nation’s increasing polarization finds much of its root cause here. 

Maybe then, the President is right to simply opt for ESPN. Sports are simple. Modern media is something different altogether – perhaps even toxic.

Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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