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Can Critics Separate Politics From Obama’s TV Style?

The Washington Post’s ombudsman has tackled an issue that I’ve often considered — namely, whether it’s possible for a TV critic to weigh in on a politician’s TV persona and performance without spilling over into political commentary.

Ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that the Post received plenty of angry email about a Tom Shales piece in which he praised Obama’s smoothness at a primetime press conference. After quoting some of the reaction, Alexander interviewed Shales, who told him, “I never talk about policies. I talk about how
[Obama] comes across on TV. I like him based on what I see on
television.”

I agree with Shales — both in his assessment that Obama is a masterful performer by TV standards, and that it’s possible to analyze television dexterity without considering specific policy merits. A pre-2008 John McCain, who famously referred to the media as his “base,” won reporters (and critics) over more with his style, accessibility and “The Daily Show” appearances than his policies. Even Ronald Reagan’s critics grudgingly admit (or most of them do) that he spun a great yarn. By contrast, one needn’t be a wild-eyed liberal to have serious doubts about Sarah Palin’s readiness for national office based on how ill-informed she appeared in a number of campaign interviews.

That said, it’s virtually impossible in today’s shrill, overheated environment to register even the most innocuous opinion about a prominent politician without appearing to take sides. Any praise or criticism thrown Obama’s way will invariably trigger knee-jerk responses from the customary knee-jerkers on both political poles. Still, conservatives tend to be far more vehement about this, inasmuch as they’re always seeking evidence to buttress their self-serving claims that the “mainstream media” has it out for them.

Nothing will mollify such voices short of an admission of bias and being “in the tank” for Obama. That said, the impulse to “review” a presidential news conference is sort of asking for trouble — often motivated by the desire of feature-section editors to demonstrate that they can play in the same sandbox as the big boys on the national desk.

Ultimately, I’d say if you want to cover politics from every angle — including the significant question of how imagery plays through the media’s filter — then be prepared to take a few hits. If your analysis is honest, only the wing nuts and true believers will be truly bent out of shape by it, and frankly, most of them are pissed off before they read word one.

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