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Blaming The Messenger? White House Ramps Up Media Critique

One of the Obama administration's favorite punching bags, even dating back to the Obama campaign, has been what it calls the frivolous "cable chatter." But its media critique was stepped up significantly in the past week as the White House struggled to find an effective response to the town hall meetings dominating television news.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs fired a warning shot Wednesday as he faced questions about what some felt was an overly friendly town hall meeting in New Hampshire, where President Obama spent considerable time dispelling rumors about his plan. Asked if the White House lost control of the message, Gibbs replied: "Do I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the President didn't get yelled at? Sure. I don't think there's any doubt about that."

In that briefing and in other interviews this week, Gibbs has also argued that the cable news culture means Americans are seeing only the angriest, most combative moments from the town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress. Some of the "misinformation" being repeated in these settings also proved, the White House argued, that the media had not done its job thoroughly reporting on the overall debate and fact-checking opponents' assertions.

The president himself levied that criticism as he took to the stump in Montana Friday. "What you haven't seen on TV -- and what makes me proud -- are the many constructive meetings going on all over the country," he said.

Earlier, the Democratic message operation had targeted the protesters themselves, accusing opposition groups of an Astroturf campaign that amounted to manufactured outrage. That proved unsuccessful, leading to the current focus on the media coverage instead. In addition to the White House response, the Democratic National Committee last week issued a memorandum to reporters with a point-by-point rebuttal called, "What You Won't See On National Cable News," showing clips from "the honest and respectful conversations" taking place.

Do they have a point? An independent analysis shows that much of the health care coverage has been on cable television and radio talk shows, and that the coverage has tended to focus on the political debate rather than the substance.

"There does tend to be a cycle to media coverage at times," said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellency in Journalism. "When we're in the middle of something that's happening, cable programming can hype it up more."

As things "settle down," though, Mitchell continued, the media then tends to say "be a little more serious about this. "We may see some of that as the town halls slow down and come to an end, and Congress gets back in session and debating actual legislation."

The PEJ's most recent news coverage index for the week of August 3-9 found that health care was by far the dominant story on cable and radio. On network TV, North Korea was the leading story, while the economy dominated online outlets and print newspapers. The heated debate at recent town hall meetings has been a particular focus.

"Certainly it's a visual draw to see and hear these clips from town hall meetings that are very heated and emotional," Mitchell said. "Part of the nature of cable talk and radio talk is built around politics. And we have seen an escalation of that in looking at the town halls."

While there has been some substantive reporting on health care issues, part of the challenge in shaping the discussion is that there is still no single piece of legislation to dissect, Mitchell said. An additional challenge for all parties is the role social media is playing.

"Everybody has less and less control about what the message is going to be in many cases because of social media and how news flows and emerges now," Mitchell said. "The public and the news consumer plays a huge role in what the message is and what gets talked about when it comes to health care and issues in general. We certainly saw that in the election and we're seeing that in health care as well."

Republicans, meanwhile, are taking some measure of delight in seeing the Obama administration making a villain out of what they feel was a strong ally.

"The notion that this White House is already whining about media coverage, considering they have been the recipient of the most favorable media exposure and coverage in recent memory, is ridiculous," said one Republican strategist whose been heavily involved in recent campaigns. "The reality is that these guys are an eighth of the way into their first term, and they're expending capital with the press, with Capitol Hill, with associations and opinion leaders and an unbelievable rate. They are going to find the well dry sooner rather than later and find no way to return."

A Pew survey shows that America is following health care more than other issues, with a plurality saying they "generally oppose" the legislation. Now, the White House has just one week left to try and shape the coverage before the president heads for vacation.

"We're not going to stop pushing back on the misconceptions, whether or not the polling shows one thing or another," Gibbs said.