On July 22, 2009, President Obama held one of the most boring news conferences in the history of televised presidential events. For nearly 50 minutes, he blathered on about private and public health care plans, red pills and blue pills, costs and benefits. In the last five minutes of the conference, he made his controversial comments about Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police department -- but by that time, everyone watching was either drifting into sleep or totally comatose.
So why did ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcast this atrocious, narcolepsy-inducing ode to arrogance in the midst of prime time?
It turns out that President Obama and his hatchet man, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are not averse to using their bully tactics on political allies as well as political enemies. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reports that when networks began fussing over broadcasting yet another Obama snoozefest, Emanuel called not the programming chiefs, but the heads of parent companies in an effort to pressure networks to greenlight his boss’s show. According to Kurtz, Emanuel buzzed Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, which owns NBC, and Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney, which owns ABC.
Any normal high-urgency presidential programming request would go through Nancy Tellem at CBS, Jeff Zucker at NBC, and Anne Sweeney at ABC. Tellem and Zucker happen to be personal donors to the Obama 2008 campaign. In 2000, Zucker seriously considered joining Al Gore’s presidential team -- Gore reportedly offered Zucker the press secretary position in his White House. These executives are friendly to the current administration. Still, that didn’t stop Emanuel from going over their heads.
There’s a reason Emanuel went over the heads of the programming execs: the programming execs recognize that each time Obama rips out the heart of a weekday primetime lineup, he costs them revenue. Hollywood is a liberal town, and there’s a general Obama worship there. But that doesn’t mean the executives are blind to basic economic facts; they recognize that if they continue to air Obama third-grade school secretary ad hoc press conferences, they will get killed in the ratings. And if they get killed in the ratings, advertisers won’t care whether they’re chummy with the president or not.
In fact, that’s precisely what happened on July 22. Obama’s press conference bombed. Despite its live broadcast on all three networks at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, it lost its time slot to Fox’s "So You Think You Can Dance?," which doubled its nearest competitor in 18-49 audience share. Fox has been the unintentional beneficiary of Obama’s addiction to network television airtime: on April 29, Fox won the 8 p.m. time slot in the coveted 18-49 crowd with "Lie to Me," and the CW came in second with "America’s Next Top Model." Obama’s star power can’t even trump Tim Roth, Tyra Banks or the random guy who does the robot anymore.
So the Obama White House has to use personal cache in order to push the networks to program its propaganda. More than that, the White House has to use the covert threat of a cutoff in White House access for networks that refuse to play ball. The alphabet networks all know that the Obama White House has largely frozen Fox’s access to administration officials. They know that Obama grants his friends access while cutting off his enemies.
This endangers the independence of the press in a catastrophic way. The media has been excoriated -- and rightly so -- for its easy treatment of Obama and his cronies. But with Obama openly pressuring the networks to accede to its requests or face a reportorial cutoff, we are witnessing the hijacking of the First Amendment in toto. Obama administration officials are used to blackmailing private entities (GM, Chrysler, Bank of America), but they cross an even more dangerous line when they endanger the free press by linking press access with network time slots.
This is a horrific precedent. It is not difficult to foresee a time when an administration grants all exclusive access to one network while cutting everyone else off. Will the tough questions be asked then? Or will we simply see an ultra-sanitized version of events, pre-scrubbed by Rahm Emanuel and his ilk?