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Mythmakers as myth busters

November 19, 2008|JAMES RAINEY | Rainey is a Times staff writer.

ON THE MEDIA — Newspaper people are an odd, conflicted sort.

They desperately love to be where the action is. They crave the chance to identify a new phenomenon. Then they race to be first to reverse direction -- declaring the new and different hopelessly overblown, or just more of the same old thing.

Into this ingrained set of collective impulses rushes the story of Barack Obama, who will be the first African American president, and Howard Kurtz, who is the Washington Post media columnist and (perhaps) first to declare fervor over Obama's election overblown.

"Media outlets have always tried to make a few bucks on the next big thing," Kurtz wrote this week. "But we seem to have crossed a cultural line into mythmaking."

Given, Kurtz has compiled an impressive list of effusive headlines, hyperbolic Obama-jargon ("Generation O" and "Obamaism") and cultural candy corn -- new songs by Jay-Z and will.i.am and Obama Girl's frothy, flirty YouTube video "I've Got a Crush on Obama."

Indeed, we have been, and will be, treated to an entire oeuvre devoted to Michelle O's slammin' wardrobe (OK, excluding that election-night mistake) and serialization of the nationwide search for the hypoallergenic First Puppy.

Writing a little breathlessly about all the breathless coverage, Kurtz asks: "Are journalists fostering the notion that Obama is invincible, the leader of what the New York Times dubbed 'Generation O'?"

Not exactly. That suggestion willfully ignores a lot that papers are writing. On front pages, you can find Obama stories with a decidedly different theme that amounts to this: Man, did this guy ever put himself in the middle of a big fat mess, and how's he going to get himself, and this country, out of it?

Besides writing about Generation O, the New York Times wrote within days of Obama's victory about the many promises the candidate made and the many high hurdles the president would have to clear to fulfill them.

The story raised the prospect that the president-elect might: find it "extremely challenging" to pay for promised early-childhood education; struggle to find the savings he promised to pay for health insurance for the uninsured, who number 45 million; face a reversal of gains in Iraqi security if he followed through on his promise to withdraw troops in 16 months.

Many other cautionary stories have filled the media in recent days.

Just Tuesday, the New York Times noted the potential conflicts of interest that could come into play if Obama selects as his secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband has made millions from speaking engagements around the world and raised millions more for his foundation. In another article, it described apparent divisions among Obama's advisors on how forcefully to investigate the domestic wiretapping he once vigorously condemned.

That's hardly light and frothy stuff, or suggestive that the nation's paper of record will shrink from challenging our new leader.

Similarly, Kurtz tweaked the Chicago Tribune (like the Los Angeles Times, owned by Tribune Co.) for rhapsodizing that Michelle Obama "is poised to be the new Oprah and the next Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- combined!"

OK, that seems pretty goofy. But it hardly begins to account for the paper's role as earnest hometown watchdog over Obama, including the young pol's relationship with corrupt investor Antoin Rezko.

Since election day, the Trib has waged a veritable smackdown against the notion that Obama may be on a glide path to immortality, with several stories detailing the bureaucratic, legislative and financial barriers in his path.

"This is a huge story as a matter of policy and government and as a matter of history, including racial history. It's also a fascinating social and cultural moment," said Richard Stevenson, who has directed the New York Times' political coverage. "We don't need to temper that in order to still maintain some distance and report aggressively."

Recent history suggests the media will have little pause shouting out when it sees a new president even approaching trouble.

Just two weeks after he won election in 1992, Bill Clinton faced a Los Angeles Times article saying his 43% plurality gave him a "fragile base for governing."

That's nothing compared to the dark clouds the press painted over the Clinton presidency after 100 days, that mythical moment the press agrees is both an artificial watershed, and an irresistible moment to pass judgment.

Stories in the L.A. Times and other papers suggested that Clinton had squandered his election momentum, been distracted by a plan to allow gays in the military and failed to follow through on his pledge to focus on the economy like a "laser beam."

Less than three months into President George W. Bush's administration, similarly, an analysis in the L.A. Times concluded that "his presidency is perpetuating -- and perhaps intensifying -- the cycle of partisan hostility he pledged to end as a candidate."

Fast forward to the present. Kurtz wonders, "Can anyone imagine this kind of media frenzy if John McCain had managed to win?"

No. No one can imagine McCainamania. Just as no one could have imagined a public and media furor over the election of Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Just as no one can imagine how hard the new president will get it, the first time the high-flying rhetoric collides with the low-down realities of the world we live in.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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