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Works and Days

What Our Media Taught Me

May 29th, 2010 - 9:27 am

I’ve been over here in Europe for about ten days, getting a different perspective on our illustrious media and how it is handling the various Obama “troubles.”

Perspective and distance are sometime valuable. I used to think, given the enormous size of the bureaucracy and the tragic nature of the human condition, that from time to time disasters would overwhelm us — and there would be not much the president of the United States could do about them. But after Katrina, the media taught me that neither the mayor nor the governor nor the Army Corps of Engineers nor the people of New Orleans were at fault for either the vulnerability to the chance of a catastrophic Katrina or the response after its arrival. No, you see, the commander in chief is the ultimate arbiter of successful or unsuccessful reactions to all such disasters. OK, so be it.

So while I am not inclined to blame Barack Obama for the scandalous federal laxity in the now polluted Gulf, the media long ago taught me that I most certainly should.

I don’t play golf. Never have swung a club. But in the spirit of live and let live, I also never cared much for deconstructing the game in terms of culture and sociology. The media, however, in 2002, taught met that I should in the case of George Bush — that his swing and even his use of a golf cart reflected a certain class disdain for us, or at least a frat-boy frivolity at a time of two ongoing wars. So while I would like to give our present president a pass on his obsession with playing golf at a frequency far in excess to poor George Bush’s, I cannot. I am conditioned now to grasp that Obama’s golf craze is a sort of self-indulgence reflective of a disturbing narcissist who entertains a shocking indifference toward the rest of us.

Press conferences were always painful to watch. Finger in the wind pundits try to one up their commander in chief, who, in turn, is always one slip of the tongue away from global scandal. But the press during the Bush administration also taught me that we need these feeding frenzies frequently, and must demand that our executives prove to be both eloquent and veracious. So while I don’t much care whether Obama stutters off the teleprompter, or idiotically says things like “corpse-man,” or misleads us on matters of fact, or even grossly says things such as the beheading of Daniel Pearl “captured the world’s imagination,” the media lectured me that I very much should care — namely, that President Obama almost never gives a press conference, and on the rare occasions when he does, we know why he was wise not to have done so in the past.

I used to think leadership meant from time to time taking on public opinion, advocating an unpopular position in a genuine belief it was for the long-term good of the country. However, here too the enlightened media taught me once that it is not so. When George Bush wanted to reform Social Security, Barack Obama was widely quoted by the press as a voice of wisdom in warning Bush not to beat a dead horse — given that the public polled overwhelmingly against any changes in Social Security (apparently fiscal insolvency will alone be the remedy for long-needed changes). In other words, we live in a democracy, and even a popularly elected president should not ram down something the people don’t want. Note that argument was advanced again with the Bush insistence on the unpopular (but ultimately successful) surge in Iraq.

Therefore, while I want to say that it was the president’s prerogative to push through an unpopular health care takeover, and to oppose a very popular Arizona law, I have learned that it was almost undemocratic that he has done so. The press instructed me on that again. Why tear apart the country, virtually create a tea-party movement, or pit Arizona against California by stoking the fires of resentment by so diametrically opposing what 60 percent and more of the people want?

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