Making Obama’s Case; Whose Job Is It?

Posted by Michael Getler on

The answer to the question in the headline is that it is up to the president to make his case to the American people with respect to why he and/or members of his party should be elected or re-elected. It is not up to journalists to make the case for them. Commentators can comment on whatever they want and analysts can analyze. But reporters should report, as accurately as possible, the facts and issues surrounding political campaigns. That all seems pretty obvious.

I was out of the country last week and so I missed the excitement of Election Day, the results, the stories, analysis, cheering and disappointment. But while I was gone, a few letters landed in my inbox that raised some interesting questions about journalism and politics. On the one hand, these letters, some of which are posted below, can be viewed simply as a cry from the heart of disappointed voters. But on another level, they were more interesting to me than that because they involve a president, Barack Obama, who is different, in important ways, from his predecessors and that makes me think it is worthwhile to question whether that should make a difference in how he is covered in the media.

What Makes Him Different

Part of what makes him different is obvious and well-known. He is our first African-American president. His mother was white and from Kansas and his father was black and from Kenya. He was born in Honolulu and his middle name is Hussein.

What also makes Obama different is that this extraordinary, bright political star that rather suddenly burst onto the American stage just 10 years ago and has twice been elected President of the United States now has an approval rating of 40 percent, and is widely perceived by his critics and even some of his supporters and supporting commentators as a disappointing, indecisive leader, seemingly distant and out-of-touch, unwilling to fight hard for his programs and almost irrelevant now to the bruising political battles that must be fought to accomplish goals in a polarized democracy.

Many other presidents have had poor approval ratings, especially around mid-term election cycles. And when a president is down, it is much easier for the press to beat up on him, as was the case with Nixon, Johnson, Clinton (at times), Reagan (at times), and George W. Bush. But in all these cases, there were huge, clear-cut national scandals or events: Watergate, Vietnam, sex in the White House with a White House intern, Iran-Contra, invading a country that did not attack us and did not have weapons of mass destruction. You can argue all you want about Obamacare, but it doesn’t crack that list.

You can also argue that President Obama, from the get-go, faced not just a huge financial crisis that was not his doing but an especially determined Republican opposition. Most often cited is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s statement in 2010 that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But you might also measure what he was to face from 2009 when, during an address to a joint session of Congress by the new president, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted out from his seat in Congress, “You lie.”

The Record

Then, there is the record: still economic problems, wage stagnation, uncertainty, inequality, for sure, and some questionable foreign policy decisions. But Obamacare has millions of supporters as well as critics. New financial and environmental regulations have been passed. The U.S. avoided a fiscal calamity and has largely been extricated from two very long wars and kept out of others. The rescued auto industry is robust. The stock market is at record highs. Interest rates remain at record lows. Gas prices are down as is unemployment at 5.8 percent, the lowest since 2008. Job growth is forecast to be the strongest this year since the 1990s. The dollar is strong, oil imports are low.

So, this is not a bad record coming out of the crisis of 2008. Yet the president appears to remain mysterious, somehow above the fray, less relevant, either unwilling or unable to lead effectively. So do journalists, in the spirit of fairness, have to say or cite, in their questioning and reporting, all those factors that would contradict or place in context the criticism that is coming his way because he isn’t doing it? I think that is what some of the letter-writers below are asking and seeking.

Journalists should, of course, wherever possible and relevant, interject factual data or add context to questions that challenge answers or statements during interviews. But this is sometimes hard to do, especially on live television, and ultimately it is the president who must demonstrate who he is, for better or worse. The role of journalists is not to do it for him. And Obama’s presidency, thus far, has been very frustrating in this respect because of the president’s style, which leaves lots of things unsaid. This puts a burden on reporters and leaves too many things to the commentators who, in today's cluttered and free-for-all media landscape, may have the loudest voices. Some of the letters below reflect that.

The letters also focus on the PBS NewsHour, which is normal because that’s the only regular news program on PBS. But, having gone over the programs that I missed, I think the NewsHour handled this vote and the days surrounding it well, and in more depth than most.    

Here Are the Letters

I am increasingly unhappy with The NewsHour coverage of Obama and Congress. There is entirely too much analysis and punditry: not enough actual reporting. My sense is The NewsHour, in an effort to be balanced, actually serves the cause of those elements within our society and government who are determined to destroy our democracy. The coverage in the aftermath of this recent election has been so blatantly anti-Obama. Why? It's a disgrace that this president has been treated with unrelenting contempt and disrespect. President Obama, practically the only man in the US government with any integrity, is treated like a total loser. Why should he have to sell his achievements? A quality news program would do that by reporting the facts. The NewsHour has now openly joined the wolf pack: going after the president is every journalist’s favorite past time.

When did the American public ask journalists to set political agendas, determine public policy? Never. Yet, you and journalists across the board have the weird notion that you do have that mandate, that you are speaking for the public. In reality you are speaking for those who have lost faith in our system of government and are part of the problem not the solution. You don't deliver the real news. You create apathy with your cynicism and obsessive-compulsive wonk talk.

Dolores Brandon Thompson, Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

I have become very disappointed in the PBS news I watch every night because the editorial decisions re: fairness to President Obama is no different from for-profit news. Here's a letter to editor from Victoria, Canada, lining out all the positive economic news in Obama's 6 years. But before the election, it and the President received no more emphasis on the positives and credit to the President's leadership out of the recession than for-profit news. Very disappointed, and devoted listener,

Madisonville, KY

~ ~ ~

I suppose that I expect too much - but I expect the NewsHour to look more deeply into the opinions that the commentators cite. By not looking more deeply you short change us and promote unwittingly the further erosion of our democracy. On the political wrap tonight your analysts repeated as your commentators have for months that President Obama is unpopular but you don't break that down. Why is Obama unpopular in these polls - it doesn't seem to make sense. The public seems to be opposed to Obamacare but they like the constituent parts of it - that doesn't make sense - why? They don't like his foreign policy but when asked about the things he is doing they support them when they are not associated with his name - Why? The economy is doing much better but they don't seem to associate that with him - why?

We are being inundated with unprecedented spending on political campaigns by unknown sources who misrepresent reality. Your journalists don't seem to care. They repeat ideas that are untrue without looking beyond the words. Your reporting is suffering from the same lack of insight along with most of the American mass media. I keep hoping you will start to bring the in-depth analysis that you bring to non-political stories to political stories.

George Price, Morrisville, PA

Posted on Nov. 13, 2014 at 10:32 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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