Obama administration goes after television 'cable chatter'

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Besides Rush Limbaugh and CNBC’s Rick Santelli, the Obama administration has a more generic media target: "cable chatter."

President Barack Obama used the phrase last week, when he said that some of the issues debated in his economic stimulus plan represented a very small part of the plan and "this sometimes gets lost in the cable chatter." It came up again Wednesday at a White House event, when Obama spoke about efforts to reduce government spending.

"I want to make sure everyone catches this, because I think sometimes the chatter on the cable stations hasn’t been clear about this," Obama said, before repeating one of his arguments.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that cable television doesn’t always give a true picture of what the public wants to hear, in explaining why Obama had left Washington to help sell his economic plan in Indiana. Americans, he said, "are eager to know what’s being done in Washington besides the same, old Washington arguments. They want to know what’s being done to help them."


Limbaugh, who has said he hopes Obama fails, and Santelli have provided specific targets. Gibbs has been eager to take on Santelli, whose CNBC criticism that the stimulus plan was rewarding people who bought houses they couldn’t afford has been seen by millions of people on the Web.

But in targeting "cable chatter," they’re attacking a mind-set as much as specific outlets. Networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC have 24 hours to fill, thrive on conflict and are paying close attention to a new administration’s first 100 days. Particularly in prime-time, many of these hours are dominated by people with strong points of view either way, and the administration may be sensing a backlash from a public tired of arguments.

"These type of criticisms rally the loyalists, puts the media on notice and makes the White House feel good because it appears to be going on the offensive and does in fact point out the media mouths out there who sometimes attack first and think later," said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief.

"Sometimes the criticism being aimed at the White House is quite right and justified," said Sesno, a George Washington University professor. "Other times it really is just a bunch of noise to fill space."

Names, and fortunes, are made by people who have proven adept at filling that space.

Cable news networks may be relatively new — Obama is really only the third president to face cable news networks not named CNN — but the practice of administrations finding convenient targets in the media is not.

By deriding "cable chatter," Obama is also minimizing anyone who appears on the stations who is critical of him, said media critic Bernard Goldberg, author of "A Slobbering Love Affair," which suggests news organizations gave candidate Obama an easy ride.

Goldberg doubts the administration has any problem with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.


"Very often, cable news is a food fight," he said. "But I’d rather see a food fight on a serious issue where you can get at least two points of view than network television, where you have limited time to discuss an important issue."

An MSNBC executive declined to talk about Obama’s media criticism, and a Fox News Channel representative did not immediately return a call. CNN U.S. President Jon Klein said he didn’t think his network was part of the problem.

"It’s almost as if they’ve been listening to our editorial meetings for the last three years," Klein said, "because that is where we have made our name, by separating ourselves out from the predictable, impotent rage of the partisan extremes."

Gibbs said on Wednesday he wasn’t singling out any network or show.

At the White House press briefing, he batted down a suggestion that the White House was being hypocritical by criticizing "cable chatter" while also specifically taking on Limbaugh and Santelli.

Yet he said he could plead guilty to counterproductive.

Gibbs, like many people in the West Wing, has a television set in his office often tuned to the very stations providing the "cable chatter."

"Look, there are days in which, yes, your head throbs from listening to arguments that aren’t necessarily centered on delving into some important issue, but finding two people at completely opposite ends of the spectrum to yell loudest in a seven-minute segment before we go on to something else," he said.

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