Unlike With Katrina, Media Stay Away from Gulf Spill Competency Questions

 AP/CBSThe mainstream media seem to have boiled down the president's reaction to the Gulf spill to two caricatures: either he has failed to satiate public appetites by feigning outrage, or he is succeeding by acting angry. Whereas journalists rightly expected President Bush to do something about Katrina--and excoriated him when he supposedly didn't do enough--the media seem content listening to Obama speak.

That the president may not be doing everything in his power, like, say, meeting with the CEO of British Petroleum, seems not even to cross their minds. So the only critique of the president that remains is one of style. By focusing on what the president has said--rather than what he has done--and how he has said it, the media have diverted (albeit unintentionally) attention from the administration's actual response to the spill to its emotional and verbal response.

Obama and his predecessor both accepted responsibility for the spill and Hurricane Katrina, respectively. But the mainstream press took the former at his word; they rightfully held him accountable for his administration's actions. No such accountability is present in the media's reporting on Obama's response to the Gulf spill.

"I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," Bush stated. Obama echoed this sentiment late last month, when he said, "I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down."

Now contrast, by way of example, the two New York Times headlines covering the respective admissions of responsibility. "Responding to Spill, Obama Mixes Regret With Resolve," the Times's editors wrote on May 27. That tone stands in stark contrast to this headline, from September 16, 2005: "Bush admits Katrina response was inadequate".

The Times captured the spirit of the media's coverage. In Bush's case, the concern was with what had and had not been done. But today the same journalists seem more concerned with what the White House is saying about the spill than with what it is doing about it.

Some, such as MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, have even bemoaned how badly the administration feels about the situation. White House staffers are apparently having nightmares in between beer pong games. If Obama hasn't succeeded at solving a problem, the media narrative goes, it is because the problem cannot be solved, not because he has failed in any way. After all, he caaaares.

After the president claimed he was looking for "whose ass to kick" in an interview with Matt Lauer on Monday, the media seized on the statement as a tangible example not just of the president's new commitment to mitigating the disaster, but even as an example of his hands-on attitude towards the spill.

NewsBusters reported Tuesday on network TV journos going gaga over the president's newfound combativeness. "In a TV interview aired today, the President said if BP's CEO worked for him, he'd be fired," stated Katie Couric. So Couric parroted the president saying what he would do in a hypothetical situation with a person with whom he has not actually met in the 50 days since the spill began.

Obama's kick-ass quote or his hypothetical threats against Tony Hayward have been touted as proof that the president is responding to the public demands that he do domething about the spill. But Obama still has not done much of anything. That fact seems lost on the media.

So readers are left shaking their heads when the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder says this:

The American Prospect's Adam Serwer notes today, "One of the things I used to like about the president is that he always seemed indifferent to village demands that he acquiesce to whatever empty political gesture they wanted him to make."

Well, Serwer can relax.

President Obama did not conjure up the posterior metaphor on his own. He turned Matt Lauer's "butt" into an "ass," and his annoyance seemed to be more a consequence of Lauer's questions than of any effort to appear angry.    Appearing angry and appearing engaged are two different things. The White House understands how anger can be appropriately channeled and employed, but at this point, they are eager for the public to see the president as engaged -- as problem solving.

If President Obama hadn't said "ass," then he'd be accused of not being angry enough. Because he did say "ass," he's accused of titrating his response to criticisms that he's not angry enough about the oil leak. The man cannot win.

Well yes, as Ace notes, "he can win -- he can do something about the oil slick."

Not just talk about it or "strike the right emotional notes," but actually do something about it, something tangible, something real, something with real-world impact.

That's how he "wins," dude. And that, I'm sad to report, is the only way he wins.

But for media personalities so used to covering a president whose tongue won him the White House, talking has supplanted action. Obama talking is Obama acting. Hence before the president's kick-ass moment, the public's sour mood towards the Gulf spill response was due to Obama's failure to adequately communicate how well he has been doing.

Now that he has succeeded in communicating, the narrative goes, he has simply succeeded. Why anyone would continue to deny him credit accordingly is completely lost on these pundits.

Ace hits the nail on the head:

So, that's what we have going on. We are allowed two permissible storylines -- Obama's not emoting enough, or Obama's emoting just enough -- and the MFM won't entertain other storylines, like, "This has nothing at all to do with emoting, but rather to do with reality and real-world achievements."
Environment Hurricane Katrina Media Bias Debate Double Standards Hurricanes Pollution Oil spill BP Gulf Oil Spill New York Times Atlantic