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By Jay Cost

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Obama and The Media Culture

I have watched with interest this Obama-Clinton dust up. On the merits, I do not find it a very interesting disagreement (full disclosure: I agree with Clinton on this). However, it was valuable to me because it confirmed my belief that Barack Obama is not running for the vice presidency. I was about 90% sure of this, thanks to his financial successes. No candidate running for the veep spots needs to raise so much. But I have wondered, in the back of my mind, whether Obama's strategy was to see if he could catapult to the top - and, barring that, finish well, not alienate the nominee, and get the veep spot. I guess not. He's stuck right now in second place, but he obviously intends to push to the top, even if that means attacking Hillary Clinton.

I have further enjoyed this disagreement because it makes explicit the media's ever-so-subtle, and self-interested, role in our politics. The whole disagreement involves whether or not the President should agree to meet with the leaders of nations we currently don't get along with. Obama said yes. Clinton said no. Both answers were given during the CNN/YouTube debate - so there was not a lot of time for subtlety. A sound bite was all they got. They had to make it good.

Since it turned into the dust up that it has turned into, both candidates have had an opportunity to amplify their positions. But does the media treat their latter statements as amplifications of views given during a ridiculously constricted format in which the next leader of the free world must share time with Mike Gravel (who, of course, took time out of his busy schedule of building fires in the woods and throwing rocks into ponds)?

Not really!

This is how E.J. Dionne characterized Obama's amplification:

In fact, Obama clearly sensed his own potential vulnerability and quickly tried to cauterize it. He was careful to say repeatedly that in talking with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Muslim leaders, he would send them "a strong message that Israel is our friend."

He also pulled back ever so slightly, insisting that "the notion that I was somehow going to be inviting them over for tea next week without having initial envoys meet is ridiculous."

To Mr. Dionne, it is not amplification - it is a backtracking for the sake of political expediency!

This is patently ridiculous. For Mr. Dionne to infer all of this about Obama's intentions simply because he could not say his peace in the time constraints imposed upon him by YouTube(!) is insulting to Mr. Obama.

Our politics is governed by the culture of the sound bite. Why is that the case? Is it simply because the sound bite is the way that the media prefers to operate? Not at all. After all, the sound bite is not in the interests of politicians - most politicians (hell, most everybody) cannot speak fluent soundbitese. Some of them can't speak it at all.

So, why do they go along with it? It is because there are penalties to those who refuse to participate. All cultures have within them such penalties for non-compliance - even if they are as simple as, "If you do not comply with our rules, you do not get our benefits." So also does the media's sound bite culture, and Mr. Dionne just delivered one of the penalties. Any time a politician tries to get around the regulations of the sound bite, he is simply cut off. Any time a politician tries to clarify his position later on, his intentions are questioned. The latter is what happened to Mr. Obama, who sadly could not convey his point in 60 seconds. He needed time later on to amplify it. And so, he is castigated as a back-tracker who is changing his tune to maximize his share of the vote.

What's the message to Obama here? The message is: learn how to do the sound bite thing better. Comply or face penalty.

Media elites like to kvetch about how our politicians are not doing what they should be doing. Here's a question for them. My intuition is that Barack Obama is going to spend extra time in debate prep so he can learn how to give a sound bite better. That way, he does not have media elites telling voters in so many words that he is a crassly self-interested backtracker. In other words, he does not want to face further criticism, so he is going to try to comply with this culture. How is learning to follow the media's narrowly self-interested rules on sound bites a good use of the time of Barack Obama, a senator to 13 million people and potentially the 44th President?

If media elites are so chagrined by how politicians do not focus on the "people's business," maybe they should think about the role they have played in their own disappointments.

-Jay Cost