White Cop, Black Professor, Bi-Racial President: An Explosive Media Combination

08/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Questioning the media's priorities is a full time occupation for online denizens -- and an undeniably important one, as media coverage shapes our views. The complex tensions between the press and online commentariat, the symbiosis between content producers and consumers, newsmakers and opinion-makers, the gradual morphing of one into the other, these are the defining characteristics of the modern political era.

In that vein, it's worth looking at the story of the moment, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Here's how CBS News tells it:

The story of a white cop (who happens to conduct classes on how to avoid racial profiling) engaging in a confrontation with a black professor (who happens to be a leading scholar on race relations) is certainly newsworthy, if only because it raises so many painful -- and relevant -- issues, and does so in movie script fashion.

When President Obama weighs in, the story goes from newsworthy to explosive. Should it? Is it yet another instance of the media's lopsided priorities, where a debate over health care is overshadowed by a relatively minor police incident?

President Obama thinks so:

On NBC's Today Show, host Matt Lauer asserted that the Gates story is getting the attention that the White House hoped would be paid to the health care debate:

That is the typical self-referential game the media have played for years, where they push one issue over another then innocently ask why it's getting more focus. It's what happened with the Swift-Boating of John Kerry: major news outlets gave unlimited coverage to Kerry's attackers, then had the audacity to step back and ask why the story 'had legs.'

I know reporters love process stories, but if Lauer genuinely thought health care was more important, he could have featured it and avoided the solipsistic analysis of how one story was stepping on another. If he thought race relations and profiling were more newsworthy, he could have simply said so and prioritized that. But you can't be both the source of the news and the dispassionate observer commenting on why one story derails another, detached from your own choices.

Similarly, the online commentariat (on blogs, Twitter, media sites, YouTube, and other communication platforms) still largely depend on traditional media for news and information and tend to flow in the direction of media coverage, amplifying the chatter of the day, whether Michael Jackson, Sarah Palin or the Gates arrest.

In short order health reform will reclaim the headlines, but for the moment, we have a perfect storm for the media and online commentariat, demonstrating yet again that events and personalities, not issues, get the lion's share of U.S. media and online interest, and that seemingly minor stories can become proxies for larger debates.

Which brings me to another matter, namely, the new administration's relationship with the press. The New York Times publishes an article with the provocative title Obama Complains About the News Cycle but Manipulates It, Worrying Some:

It has become his common lament. Challenged about difficulties with his economic or legislative programs, President Obama complains about the tyranny of "the news cycle," pronouncing the words with an air of above-it-all disdain for the impatience and fecklessness of today's media culture. Yet after six months in office, perhaps no other president has been more attuned to, or done more to dominate, the news cycle he disparages. Mr. Obama has given roughly three times as many interviews as George W. Bush and held four times as many prime-time news conferences as Bill Clinton had by comparable points in their terms.

The all-Obama, all-the-time carpet bombing of the news media represents a strategy by a White House seeking to deploy its most effective asset in service of its goals, none more critical now than health care legislation. But longtime Washington hands warn that saturation coverage can diminish the power of his voice and lose public attention.

Setting aside the snide tone of the piece, it is a fact that Obama's relationship with the media is one of the centerpieces of his presidency, whether he wants it to be or not. His communications team, the best in the business, are adept at navigating the ever-accelerating news cycle, but with the growing power of the online commentariat and the recursiveness and unpredictability that comes with it, they are navigating treacherous waters, where conventional wisdom can change -- and be changed -- with unnerving ease and rapidity.

This is well illustrated by the continued ability of the right to get its message out on health care reform. It's confounding that a Democratic president with a Democratic majority and an online army coming out of the election are struggling to make the case for reforming our broken health care system. But that's exactly what's happening, thanks in part to the intransigence of some Democrats, the money and power of entrenched interests, but also to the democratization of information and opinion, the unprecedented broadening of the public discourse across the web, the advent of microblogging, combined with the skewed editorial judgments of the media, where all opinions are created equal and any opinion can instantly gain widespread visibility.

The dramatic detour from health care to race over what Obama surely believed was an innocent answer to a reporter's question about one of his friends is just one example of how the new media landscape affects the national debate -- there will be many other such examples in the days to come.

Obama Addresses Gates Remarks At Press Conference