On the media: Cable and network news spew criticism about gulf oil spill

For the better part of eight years, much of the Washington media commentariat made no secret of its disdain for a swaggering, tough-talking president.

Psychoanalyst in chief Maureen Dowd belittled the macho man in the Oval Office. In his overweening "Mission Accomplished" strut atop an aircraft carrier, George Bush looked like "Maverick," the cocky fighter pilot of "Top Gun" fame, Dowd wrote.

Fast forward one administration, add one hellacious oil spill and, voila, Madame Dowd sneers at our new commander in chief. "President Spock" is not emotive enough. Pose and preen away over the Gulf Coast misery, the New York Times columnist all but begged President Obama, pining for a "Feeler in Chief," like Bill Clinton, who "would certainly know how to gush at a gusher gone haywire."

Modern history's supposed Most Favored President now has flak coming from all sides. On the right, Fox News and friends caricature a leader they are certain must be bent on using a man-made disaster as another fulcrum to create a super-controlling socialist state. On the left, MSNBC and fellow clamorers disdain mere competence. They want a snarling, corporate-bashing bad man, who will lead a massive government intervention to, to … well, it's not clear exactly what they want. But they want. Something. Done.

Considering the alternatives among these media opinion leaders, one might find inspiration in the president's six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling. Why not impose a moratorium of your own? No more cable television. No more talk radio. No more editorial pages. Until their leaky logic is plugged.

Voter surveys repeatedly signal that Americans want a president who's not doctrinaire, one who leads from the middle. But 24-hour cable and the vast void that is the World Wide Web must be filled. And bigger audiences go to those who can co-opt a niche.

So after Tuesday night's nationally televised speech by Obama from the Oval Office, off went the aggrieved left, exploding with indignation was the hallucinatory right. The resulting sights and sounds had all the subtlety of a soccer stadium filled with plastic vuvuzela horns.

MSNBC's Chris Matthews, always one for symbolism over substance, bemoaned the president's failure to exhibit "command and control." A winning speech, Matthews was certain, would have featured Obama declaring: "I'm calling the shots. My name is Barack Obama. I'm the boss. I'm telling people what to do." Matthews seemed to be serious.

As offensive to liberal commentators as the president's failure to puff out his chest, was his inability to immediately, right now, pull from the catastrophe a consensus on carbon-controlling legislation that evaded official Washington for decades.

Although Obama spent the last quarter of the speech insisting that the U.S. adopt new energy habits, that struck MSNBC's gigantically self-important Keith Olbermann as not good enough. Olbermann hit Obama for failing to draw "a bigger picture of America's energy future." His cable-mate, Rachel Maddow, wanted oil companies called out as liars and cheats.

What about the fact the administration had helped arrange for BP to put $20 billion into an escrow account to make money available to victims of the oil spill? That seemed like a distraction to the blatherers. Checks arriving in the mail for desperate gulf victims, outside of television cameras view? Well, that just doesn't have much … fizz.

Unless, that is, you are a member of the permanent opposition. Over at Fox News, Sean Hannity assured us that setting aside this $20 billion was mere "grandstanding." Poor ol' BP might even be in the clear, Hannity seemed to suggest, because the federal government had approved the drilling. And it's always the government's fault. Always.

Luckily Fox's Glenn Beck watched the speech too, because Hannity wasn't probing deep enough. Beck assured us Obama's oil-spill response amounted not to some garden-variety political opportunism but something grandly nefarious. Beck declared ominously (his favored default) that "There is a war being fought and it isn't against the oil spill, it is on our very way of life."

Make note: Controlling carbon consumption threatens our way of life. Relying on sketchy foreign potentates for our main source of energy does not.

Fox officials defend such rants, saying that the cable outlet plays it straight during its day-time news programs and on "Special Report With Bret Baier," the cable network's equivalent of the evening news.

Funny, then, what I saw when I popped in for a few minutes this week and caught Fox "news" woman Shannon Bream hosting a chat about Obama's oil response. One guest assured Bream that the administration's response to the oil spill was much worse than the Bush administration's response to Katrina. Another said how bad it looked to have the president out enjoying himself during the crisis.

Rebuttal witnesses? Why bother. Maybe Fox has made this another opinion show, because there was host Bream, concluding that Obama certainly "seems to be floundering."

Wall-to-wall opposition to the man in the White House would not surprise anyone who spends any time with Fox. But the degree of ideological tilt became even clearer with the recent release of research by the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The CMPA studied Fox's "Special Report" and the network news programs during Obama's first year in office. Because audiences are most influenced by nonpartisan experts, the CMPA counted positive and negative statements by such authorities, rather than partisan Democrats and Republicans on the air.

The authorities quoted on Fox's flagship "Special Report," the research found, made negative comments about Obama a whopping 79% of the time.

Some defenders of the cable outlet will try to suggest Fox is only making up for softball coverage by the three networks. But the study shows that wasn't the case: Experts interviewed on NBC, CBS and ABC during Obama's first year gave negative evaluations 55% of the time. (Unfortunately the researchers did not follow, MSNBC, another regular blurrer of the news/opinion line.)

Anyone seeking safe and sane analysis of what's happened in the gulf, and the president's response, would be better off reading print news coverage. The print media haven't been easy on the president, but they have been detailed and precise.

Cable offers histrionics, like the repeated assertion that Obama banned all foreign assistance in the spill zone. The Washington Post found the Obama administration slow to accept foreign aid, but that some foreign cleanup teams eventually offered a measure of assistance.

Some cable shouters suggested Obama's drilling moratorium would put every last oil roughneck out of work. It took Politifact, the website operated by the St. Petersburg Times, to clarify that the ban applies to "exploratory oil drilling, not to existing, oil-producing deepwater platforms, which will continue to produce."

Digging deeper, the Wall Street Journal (like Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire) has been first off the mark among the many papers that have described how the Mineral Mining Service became the oil companies' pal, rather than their watchdog.

The government failed at that task. And now we've got one big mess — the one down in the gulf and the one endlessly burbling up from the depths of editorial pages and 24-hour TV.

Twitter: latimesrainey

james.rainey@latimes.com

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