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President Obama as Media Critic (Rather Than Subject)

02/18/2015 06:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Last week, in an interview with Matthew Yglesias of Vox Media, President Obama was asked whether the media overstates the threat of terror compared with longer-term problems such as climate change and disease. With refreshing candor, the president responded, "Absolutely. And I don't blame the media for that... You show crime stories and you show fires, because that's what folks watch."

Predictably, conservatives pounced, claiming that the president was trying to have it both ways: he's criticizing the media for hyping terrorism and yet he's asking for new war powers by starkly portraying the ISIS threat. What irked conservatives most is that he's been giving interviews to Web outlets like Vox that toss him softball questions instead of squaring off against the mainstream press.

On Sunday, I backed up the president's points on Howard Kurtz's MediaBuzz show on Fox News. You can watch the clip (if you're interested):

As a progressive who appears regularly on Fox, I'm keenly aware of the adversarial and commercial nature of America's journalism culture. It's a competitive environment and, in order to attract audiences, these networks run stories that are attention-grabbing and easily intelligible. Terrorism fits these two criteria. First, it is by definition comprised of spectacular and arresting displays of violence and, like "crime stories and fires," it inherently attracts our curiosity. Second, it has clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The same can't be said for pension reform, climate change or education policy.

America's commercial news media has what I've called an "incendiary" quality. In trying to attract an audience, it resembles the (actual and metaphorical) fires that it fixates upon. It alternately sheds light and radiates heat. The topic of my Sunday morning debate is, itself, an illustration of the points I made during it. While, to most media observers, the president was merely stating the obvious, to some members of the ever self-conscious media, the suggestion that the media overstates the terrorist threat was downright provocative. And as long as provocation attracts an audience, it will be newsworthy.

This focus on provocation and extremism is not necessarily a bad thing. It can have a moderating effect, as partisan TV commentators take aim at politicians' extreme positions and investigative print journalists ferret out cases of aberrant business practices. The commercial media is also good at showcasing examples of extreme acts of heroism or kindness. As the journalism professor Pamela Shoemaker observes, news audiences everywhere have an innate interest in "people, ideas, or events that are deviant (either positive or negative)." Good journalists are mindful that they amplify "deviance" even while they subject it scrutiny. And the journalists and pundits that espouse extreme opinions are, themselves, kept in check by journalists at other networks.

People understandably tire of partisan bickering. But looking at American journalism holistically, we see can an approximation to John Milton's notion of a "free and open encounter" of ideas. In trying to appeal to large swaths of people, the media engages in a continuous conversation with its audience over the very definitions of deviance and normality, and the contours our shared values and beliefs. This process has been called "mainstreaming" by some media scholars. Despite moral panics that perennially arise, the American mass media has done more to mitigate than motivate extremism.

While the mass media has a moderating influence on public opinion, this is not necessarily true of online media. The president's former regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, wrote a book (which I've taught in my graduate media studies seminar at The New School) that describes how Americans politically self-segregate online. On the Internet, conservatives and liberals rarely encounter and exchange information that challenges their views. In a series of experiments, Sunstein showed how this process of "cyberbalkanization" doesn't simply reinforce pre-existing beliefs, but actually makes those beliefs more extreme.

From this perspective, it's a valid concern that the president would make himself available for a liberal website but bypass the adversarial environment (and broader audience) of the mainstream media. When I brought this up with someone at the White House, I was reminded that people are getting more and more news online and told that "not talking to folks who consume news on the Web would be like Nixon refusing to do TV." It's a good justification for doing online interviews even if it doesn't address the underlying criticism of selecting like-minded journalists.

The same person noted that interviews like this are "reaching huge audiences of people that are very tuned into the issues and to politics." While it's great that his message is getting to people that are tuned in, I'd prefer to see the president attracting people who are tuned out. And nothing would do that more than a fiery discussion between an intrepid interviewer and a quick-witted American president. Like crime stories and fires, "that's what folks watch."