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MSM: More Message Discipline Now!
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July 24, 2009, 07:52 PM
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One of the more striking aspects of press coverage of the Obama Administration is how vociferously the press demands to be bored. For example, Sonia Sotomayor`s stonewalling and dissimulation in her Senate testimony were greeted not with scorn and demands for revelations, but with praise for how well she played the game of being boring and calls by pundits for eliminating Senate hearings for Supreme Court justices altogether.

And here is The Fix in the Washington Post, in which Chris Cillizza laments that Obama`s press conference produced an interesting, unexpected news story that revealed some normally well-concealed aspects of the President`s personality:

A seemingly innocuous answer by President Barack Obama in response to a question at last night`s press conference regarding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spawned a national controversy that threatens to overshadow the chief executive`s messaging on the urgency of health care reform. ... But, little did we know that media maelstrom that would ensue. ...

A tempest in a teapot? Almost certainly. But, the media swirl that has developed in the wake of Obama`s comments last night reveals just how critical message discipline is when you sit in the White House.

The Administration wanted today`s message to be about the urgent need for health care reform — witness the president`s town hall in Cleveland and the new Democratic National Committee ad campaign — but instead saw much of the coverage focused on whether Obama stepped too far out on a limb in his defense of Gates.

Again, the long-term impact of the Gates story is minimal. But, for every minute of press coverage it draws is a minute not being spent pushing the idea of the necessity of health care reform.

The Mainstream Media demand: More Message Discipline Now!

It`s as if every single person in America these days is in the Marketing Department. Journalism today consists primarily of marketing campaigns and critiques of the implementation of those marketing campaigns.

A lot has changed over the last century.

By way of contrast (but mostly for my own enjoyment), here`s an excerpt from the exuberant autobiography, A Child of the Century, by Ben Hecht, co-author of the newspaper play The Front Page (later reworked for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as His Girl Friday). Hecht did more than anyone to create the old stereotype of American reporters, so here`s their historic first encounter when he was hired at age 16 by the Chicago Journal in 1910:

We entered a large barnlike room full of desks and long tables, piled with typewriters and crumpled newspapers. There were many men in shirt sleeves. Some of them were bellowing, others sprawled in chairs asleep, with their hats down over their eyes. ... The smell of ink, the drunks coming in with seven A.M. hangovers and sucking therapeutically on oranges, the clanging of a mysterious bell abovve Mr. Dunne`s head, the air of swashbuckle — hats tilted, feet up on top of typewriters, faces breathing out liquor fumes like dragons — these matters held me shyly spellbound.

... before another week was done, I was a curious combination of ruffian, picklock and enemy of society. Mr. Finnegan, handsome and smiling, sent me forth each dawn to fetch back a photograph of some news-worthy citizen — or die. The citizen was usually a woman who had undergone some unusual experience during the night, such as rape, suicide, murder or flagrante delicto. ... The picture chaser was thus a shady but vital figure. It was his duty to unearth, snatch or wangle cabinet photographs of the recently and violently dead for his paper. While maturer minds badgered the survivors of the morning`s dead for news data, ... I scurried through bedrooms, poked noiselessly into closets, trunks and bureau drawers, and, the coveted photograph under my coat, bolted for the street.

On his fellow journalists of a century ago:
They sat, grown and abuzz, outside an adult civilization, intent on breaking windows.

There was, I am sure, neither worldliness nor cunning enough among the lot of us to run a successful candy store. But we had a vantage point. We were not inside the routines of human greed or social pretenses. We were without politeness. There was a feast all around us. We attended it as scavengers. We picked up and examined the debris of murders, suicides, family explosions. Our noses were full of the odors of chicanery and human fatuousness.

I`m sure the progress of journalists over the last century toward being polished marketing professionals is all for the best, but, still, it`s kind of boring.