Last night, President Obama gave a press conference aimed at helping to sell his health-care overhaul plan. This morning, TV news was all over it—though not necessarily over health care. The last question was about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge home, raising the question of whether the African American scholar was being racially profiled. Obama gave a direct, sometimes wisecracking answer, saying that he wasn’t there and didn’t know if race was a factor, but that the police were “acting stupidly” to cuff the prof after he’d identified himself.
And we were off! This morning, the Today show, Good Morning America and cable news led with the Gates remarks. Health care? Eh—we’ll get to it.
The argument for leading with the story, as with all hot-button news stories, is that it was about Important Larger Issues That People Care About: in this case, race, justice, the law, &c. And as ABC White House Correspondent Jake Tapper replied to me on Twitter this morning—the man is the hardest-tweeting correspondent in the TV biz—”It’s called the NEWs not the OLDs.”
All true. The Gates arrest and its aftermath—and Obama’s comments—are absolutely news. (It’s about race, politics and justice. But then health care is about life, money and class. It’s all about “bigger issues” in the end.) But the story, and the complicated issues it raises, was not the news before the President spoke a few words that were guaranteed talking-head red meat. Suddenly it is.
Now, we could argue about the rightness or wrongness of the President’s comment. Hell, let’s do it right now and get it out of the way. None of us, like Obama admitted of himself, were in the house. But was it “stupid” for police to handcuff and book perhaps the most famous academic in America, almost certainly the most famous African American academic, well-known from successful PBS specials and Oprah—after he had established that he was in his own home and not a burglar?
Put it this way: I would doubt the officers’ superiors later described the move as “genius.”
That said: the long-standing safe route for Presidents asked to weigh in on open legal cases (or potential ones) is to say that they don’t know all the facts, they want to let the justice system work, that respect and fair treatment are the rights of all Americans, etc. Obama was bound to stir up reaction by going there regarding the actions of police. Whether he stepped on and botched his health-care pitch by talking off the cuff—i.e., acted stupidly—or intentionally put the focus on an issue that mattered to him, we can’t know.
Either way, Obama helped guarantee news focus on Gates partly because his comments were so much better—direct, animated, witty and to the point—than what he said on health care. This is not a judgment on the substance of his argument, but Obama focused on longtime arguments about why the status quo is broken rather than offering much new detail about his specific plans.
Nonetheless, health care was evidently a big enough deal that the networks (except Fox) gave an hour of primetime to it. That’s because health care is a massive part of personal budgets and the national one, because any government action has potential for far-reaching social and economic changes, and because the presser came at a crucial juncture in deciding whether a bill can pass Congress. Whether his effort was effective or ineffective, its effect, or lack thereof, on this potential sea change is big news the next morning.
Is it now less important than a police case—however newsy and however linked to big social issues—in Massachusetts? No; but the decision of most of the newscasts today showed that exciting beats important.
In any case, there was one winner* in all this: CNN, which debuted its special Black in America 2 right after the news conference. As Soledad O’Brien said on CNN this morning, “It was good timing for us.”
For Americans concerned about their health-care future—not so much.
[Update: The Fox News PR department, by the way, writes to dispute this characterization, noting that CNN's 9 p.m. hour got smashed by Bill O'Reilly, as it usually does, by about 3.5 million to 2 million viewers. Noted, though it's hard to say whether the special, with its fortuituous lead-in, did better or worse than CNN's regular 9 p.m. programming would have.]