Journalists can become caught up in a moment

When George Bush’s people put on a $42-million inaugural program four years ago, many editorial writers and columnists around America came unglued.

A St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times commentator said the president needed to prove that his call for sacrifice “is more than just empty words.” A Washington Post columnist suggested Bush & Co. should be ashamed of staging lavish parties in the face of their debacle in Iraq. A columnist at the New York Observer evoked images of Louis XIV.

It would have been nice, for the sake of consistency and fairness, if the commentariat had leveled a measure of that same attitude at last week’s Obamapalooza, which cost roughly the same but drew a fraction of the blow-back.

Critics on the right have explained the discrepancy with their default argument about liberal media bias. But I think President Obama got a (mostly) free pass on his lavish coming-out party because of other bad media habits: like the tendency to follow the pack, to embrace critiques if they are buttressed by a politician’s allies and, especially, to get swept up in the mood of the moment.

Reporters -- yes, even columnists -- are human. They get carried away with the big story and have trouble changing direction -- which last week centered on all the people who came a long way to be a part of history.


“The press is reflecting a euphoria about the Obama presidency that is real and a honeymoon that any new president gets,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “But it’s important for media not to get caught up in that euphoria.”

First, the facts as laid out by the nonpartisan FactCheck .org: Obama’s private fundraising for inaugural parties and events will probably come to $45 million. Adjusted for inflation, that would amount to slightly less than the $42.3 million that Bush raised for his second inaugural.

That’s not counting the well over $100 million that taxpayers had to shell out this year and in 2005 for a phalanx of local, state and federal police and security agencies.

Contrary to some assertions, many news organizations -- including the Los Angeles Times -- quoted critics about the unseemliness of partying so hearty at a time like this, when Circuit City clerks, Microsoft techies and lots of others are swelling the unemployment lines.

Three days before Obama was sworn in, the Associated Press captured the incongruity with a story that began: “Unemployment is up. The stock market is down. Let’s party.”

That piece played the hypocrisy card on a couple of Democratic congressmen (Anthony Weiner of New York and Jim McDermott of Washington) who argued four years ago that, with the nation at war, Bush should rein in his celebration.

America’s still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and now faces a painful recession. But the congressmen didn’t express the same concern, the AP reported, when it was their own party getting ready to party.

So, Obama’s pricey debut has not gone unnoted. But the critics attacked Bush more fiercely and in greater numbers four years ago. As one measure, an online search for the words “Bush, inauguration, extravagant” for the three months around the 2005 inaugural turned up 140 news stories, compared with 99 for a similar search on Obama.

Why the difference?

Reporters and columnists tend to feel they have a particularly free hand to launch criticisms when a politician’s allies agree there is a problem.

In 2005, Bush supporter and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban helped open the floodgates when he told the press that the inaugural balls should be canceled and the money donated to tsunami victims in South Asia.

The Washington Post found a “white-collar Republican” lodging a similar complaint. And Newsday on Long Island added oomph to the argument when it reported how the parents of soldiers serving in Iraq said the celebration money would be better spent on body armor for their sons.

No equivalent critics emerged this time around. But that doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t have raised the obvious question. With Obama speaking eloquently about the need for sacrifice in a time of need, it seems only natural people might want to know how that squares with a $150-million party.

Yes, this was an inauguration for the history books. Yes, the country needed its spirits lifted. Nothing would have, or should have, driven Obama’s achievement off front pages.

But we have learned, painfully, what happens when journalists get caught up in the mood of the moment -- to the exclusion of other ideas.

They stop asking questions. They channel the popular narrative. They even watch young men and women being shipped overseas without demanding sufficient justification.

The press’ failure to buck popular sentiment worked in Bush’s (short-term) favor, as the president pushed toward war in Iraq.

That failure said much more about the press’ psychology -- caught up in the fear of terrorism and desire to unite behind the commander in chief -- than it did about its ideology, which generally tends toward the liberal and antiwar.

Six years later, the public overwhelmingly supports the new president. Surveys show that even a majority of Republicans have a positive view of Obama.

That gives Obama tremendous power -- and the press a tremendous responsibility, to avoid being carried away.

It might not be a matter of life and death, but I’d still like to know: What else could we have gotten with that $150 million?