By DeWayne Wickham
The simmering debate over whether Barack Obama did the right thing by going on “The View” centers on whether his foray into the murky ground of daytime television besmirches the dignity of the presidency.
But this concern is a shallow one that turns our attention away from an issue that is deeper and far more troubling.
Nearly 7 million people watched Obama wedge himself onto a couch between Barbara Walters, the show’s creator, and the program’s four co-hosts. The five women, an irascible, eclectic mix of estrogen, didn’t make him squirm during an hour of questioning on the popular program, which resembles more of a coffee klatch than a news show.
Of course, that’s why Obama decided to go on “The View.” With his approval rating sagging badly and his Democratic party hoping to stave off a drubbing in the mid-term congressional elections, the president needs to rally female voters, a critical part of his political base. And “The View” is a good place to go hunting for their support. Women are nearly 80% of the show’s audience.
Obama won 56% of the female vote in the 2008 presidential election. But recent polls show his approval rating among women has dropped below 50%. So as a matter of political strategy, it makes sense for the president to try to reverse this slide on “The View,” rather than on a TV news show.
I know coming from me such an acknowledgement sounds like treasonous talk to those who think presidents should regularly subject themselves to the questions – and judgment – of serious journalists. Even Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Democratic Party chairman, objected to the president going on the show.
“I think the president should be accessible, should answer questions that aren’t pre-screened, but I think there should be a little dignity to the presidency,” he said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Rendell compared “The View” to “The Jerry Springer Show,” and then added: “I think the president of the United States has to go on serious shows.”
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find truly serious journalists to populate television news shows. The lines between “serious” journalism and news-entertainment has been blurring for years.In 1994, while promoting his latest book, then-CBS news anchor Dan Rather went on the ”Late Show with David Letterman” and exhibited his tobacco spitting skills.
Before being picked to anchor the “CBS Evening News” in 2006, Katie Couric was a guest host of the ‘Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” After taking the job she went on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central faux news show and joked about giving a free colonoscopy to viewers of her CBS show to beef up its audience.
In 2007, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams hosted “Saturday Night Live,” the network’s long-running comedy show. And earlier this year, Christiane Amanpour played a TV journalist in the movie “Iron Man 2.” This month she takes over as host of “This Week,” ABC’s real-life Sunday morning news show.
Given this cross-dressing, it’s not surprising that Stewart, the comedian, was ranked right alongside “serious” network anchors in 2008 when Americans were asked which journalist they admire the most.
You can expect the confusion over who’s a real journalist – and what’s a serious news program – to grow as more and more news organizations try to do journalism on the cheap. Using untrained people to provide video to broadcast news outlets and newspapers’ reliance on “citizen journalists” to help fill the void created by the downsizing of their news staffs blurs the line even more.
The short-term financial gain news organizations get from this watering down of the practice of journalism will, in the long run, make it harder for Americans to distinguish the difference between programs like “The View” and a network newscast.
And it will make it increasingly easy for savvy politicians like Obama to avoid answering tough questions from this nation’s dwindling number of truly serious journalists.