Obama-Mania, and the Perils of Premise-First Reporting

My weekend reading included Robin Givhan’s Washington Post piece, “Echoes of TV’s First Lady,” which concluded that Michelle Obama’s only real cultural antecedent is Clair Huxtable, the lawyer mom on NBC’s iconic 1980s comedy “The Cosby Show.”

The only problem, as was evident throughout the piece, is that supporting and propping up that premise meant ignoring or discounting examples that might inconveniently undermine it. And given that “Cosby” signed off 17 years ago, there are plenty of characters and personalities — beginning, most glaringly, with Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks — that Givhan was forced to omit or significantly diminish in order to buttress her theory.

Of course, to make her case that “the last similarly accomplished and wholesome black woman to enter the homes of TV audiences” was the “Cosby” character played by Phylicia Rashad, Givhan had to downplay African-American female doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” just to cite a few high-profile current examples, as well as series such as “Girlfriends.” Nor does the article exhibit any recognition of how the TV world has changed — that no comedy or drama circa 2009 approaches the broad reach and cultural heft of “Cosby,” which premiered a full quarter-century ago in a media landscape that bears scant resemblance to today’s highly fragmented marketplace.

Such disclaimers would clearly soften such a story’s hook. But it doesn’t make them any less obvious, or any less accurate.

Frankly, I see this as an increasingly common affliction in some of our major newspapers — a product of reporters too willing to please their editors, too harried to make an extra call, or too ambitious to entertain conflicting information that might dilute a gee-whiz pitch. The aggravating part is that it’s a short hop from the Post’s Style section or the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure pages to the ravenous maws of network morning shows and cable news, virtually ensuring that a half-baked or bogus concept can circle the media globe, as the saying goes, before the truth can get its pants on.

Throw in the prevailing fascination with all things Obama, and it’s a prescription for all the non-news that’s fit to print … and link to … and copy.

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