Feb 19th 2009

Taking the Long View

by James Warren

Former managing editor and Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune

By the time President Obama signed the historic stimulus package in Denver Tuesday, perhaps the toughest challenge posed to him and aides was again unintentionally underscored on our hyperkinetic financial news cable channels.

Can he really and truly get us to take "the long view"? Can he both exploit and turn his back on the same media technologies that impact how we respond to events and crises?

On Bloomberg TV, one found a broad-shouldered trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, whose black-and-white squares-filled shirt and jacket suggested a cross between Elton John and a zebra, declaring, "People don't care about two, three weeks down the road, a month. They need the money now, they need the mortgage payment lower now, they need that line of credit erased. Actually, they needed it yesterday. "

"We have a Band-Aid on a cut artery, " proclaimed the commodities futures specialist as the screen showed a "Volatility Index" graphic resembling an outline of the Swiss Alps, as well as this cheery news, all in capitals, underneath: "COMMODITIES PLUNGE TO LOWEST SINCE 2002."

Over on CNBC, the high-energy melancholy was in similar view. There was word of U.S. marshals raiding a financial services firm and a government spokesman informing, "This is a fraud of shocking magnitude that has spread its tentacles through the world." Another Bernie Madoff Mess? "Yes, here we go again," said ever-sober Power Lunch co-host Bill Griffeth.

It was soon off to the latest on the auto industry, with the Imperiled Three finishing mandated groveling to Washington via their latest restructuring strategies. Wouldn't bankruptcy be a good idea, another host asked an analyst. Further, if the union, government and bondholders are going to wind up with some equity in General Motors, "should anybody be buying GM at all? Are they going to get squinched down to nearly nothing when this is all said and done?"

"Yes," said the analyst with the same air of no-nonsense empiricism prevalent during the frequent hear-no-evil run-up to our financial debacle. "We have a 'sell" on General Motors based on that reason," the young fellow said. "If the government gets equity, bondholders, the UAW gets equity, the shareholders aren't going to have much left."

It was like this all day, be the topic the stimulus, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's plan for the financial sector or the prospects for the housing market. Media-real estate baron Mort Zuckerman was one of eight (or was it nine?) men and women stuck in on-screen boxes on CNBC, debating what to do with nearly 20 million homes where the mortgages exceed the homes' values.

"S&P 500 DROPPING 4.4%, NEAR THE DAY'S LOW OF 790" was the next update on our travail.

Obama, of course, was in Denver, to sign the stimulus bill, fortunately not conflicting with the crux of the Alex Rodriquez steroids press conference and thus inspiring mass dyspepsia among TV news directors and producers nationwide.

But A-Rod, who followed the now pro forma celebrity script of instant contrition, inadvertently did remind how much we've become accustomed to quick answers and resolutions, be the matter a lying superstar, our favorite prime time thriller or what to do with a crumbling 401(k).

Back in President Roosevelt's day, "in a newspaper-dominated media culture, you could hold off the press for at least several hours and there was time to think about how to react to breaking events," said Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek columnist and author of a book on FDR's first 100 days in office.

"The radio stations didn't demand an instant reaction, so when Pearl Harbor was bombed, FDR could wait until December 8 before speaking to the nation. Nowadays, he would have had to appear within minutes of the news."

And when President John Kennedy returned from an October, 1962, campaign trek to Chicago to campaign for Rep. Sidney Yates, claiming he had a cold, he "could keep the real reason -- the Cuban Missile Crisis -- a secret for several days. Today, some blogger would post how that story about his having a cold was a cover and the media would be braying immediately to find out what was going on."

For sure, as Alter reminded, there was a vague counterpart to a 24-hour cacophonous news cycle back in FDR's day, with so many hotly-competitive, and distinctly ideological, morning and afternoon newspapers. But he conceded there was more time to think and no real counterpart to what Alter calls the "cable bait," or the non-story stories which can consume the medium for periods (and FDR surely controlled the general flow of news, insisting on what was on-the-record and off-the-record, in ways a modern president like Obama simply cannot).

The increasingly splashy cable, internet and, if truth be told, newspaper presentations work (generally) for many reasons, including the way they stimulate our brains, say some brain researchers. It's a likely explanation for why high-energy, highly-emotional presentations work on TV, no matter how much old-fart news folks (present company included) may cringe at times.

Into that universe comes an anti-Geraldo, namely President Obama, a man more redolent of C-Span's Brian Lamb in this Age of Bill O'Reilly.

"My job is to help the country take the long view -- to make sure that not only are we getting out of this immediate fix, but we're not repeating the same cycle of bubble and bust over and over again," he told columnists aboard Air Force One last week as he headed home to Chicago.

"Technology has gotten ahead of itself," said historian Richard Norton Smith. "And Washington's a bell jar, with everybody talking to one another and winding up disconnected from the outside world."

"There's a disconnect between real people and the punditocracy, driven by the need every day to have a new narrative, or a twist on the old narrative," said Smith, who's now living and teaching just outside the capital, at Virginia's George Mason University. "Real time, as TV defines it, is radically different than it's really lived outside the TV studios."

So can Obama, who may well understand what Smith is saying, now help us take that long view?

His personality seems custom-made to this perfect storm, with the evidence provided by accounts of his measured responses to his few presidential primary stumbles. For sure, his aides, notably spokesman Robert Gibbs, will have to respond, even if it is not to respond, to the frequent obsession with late-breaking triviality of many members of the press.

And even if he can be a tad less-than-candid at times -- witness his Denver reference Tuesday to the "sense of responsibility missing from Wall Street to Washington," but nothing about the poor judgments of homeowners on Main Street -- he does seem to have the self-discipline now very much in need.

"We're incredibly sick of just hearing the government say we will do something!" one Chicago-based financial analyst was exclaiming on Bloomberg TV. "The market can't handle that anymore."

As she finished, the New York Stock Exchange closing bell was ringing.

"We've got losses across the board," declared the anchor.

We've also got a guy in the White House who may, thankfully, count to ten, take a deep breath, and show the leadership that can be patience.

The article was first published on the Huffington Post.

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