Time's Von Drehle: Obama's Ft. Hood Speech Ruined by Too Much TV Analysis
Here we go again: a liberal journalist feeling Barack Obama's pain, that he would be instantly judged by the media. Wait, the Obama-mythologizing, pinch-me-history-is-happening media? Yes. Time Senior Writer David Von Drehle wrote an article titled "Obama's Fort Hood Speech: Lost in Translation." Von Drehle compared it to...the Gettysburg Address:
Lincoln was lucky. His speech at Gettysburg wasn't televised, and so he wasn't subjected to hours of commentary in advance of his address, setting expectations, or hours after his speech, analyzing his every word.
No one tried to tease out the difference between his "Commander in Chief moment" and his "pastor-in-chief role," as various TV pundits undertook to do while waiting for President Barack Obama to speak at a memorial service Tuesday for the men and women killed last week in the massacre at Fort Hood. Televised speeches now come larded in so much analysis, before and after, that it becomes almost impossible to connect with them in a genuine, visceral way.
Time magazine is beating its collective breast: we are not the makers of glorious Obama history! We are the blabby pundits that prevent a "genuine, visceral" connection with Obama's eloquence!
Von Drehle seems to wish that everyone was like C-SPAN and just transmitted President Obama without any annoying commentary that might diminish his stature:
Today, everything is a set piece of some kind, framed as a recapitulation of a familiar form. Former Bush speechwriter and now columnist Michael Gerson was just one of many voices filling the empty air with comparisons of Obama's yet-to-be speech with the words of George W. Bush after 9/11, of Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion. And every set piece is political, whether it should be or not, as we learned from the repeated observation that Obama's speech would be a sort of prelude to his awaited decision on strategy and troop levels in the Afghanistan war.
Von Drehle lamented what he feared the public had missed: "Obama's speech was somber and concise. He spoke of the dead as individuals, which was sorrowful, and also as exemplars, which was inspiring. He made some points well worth making." But television just ruins it, dragging Obama's soaring speeches down to the pedestrian depths of political chatter. We are critics, not citizens:
Simple truths are often the best. But even these, on television, come swimming now against a current of expectations: Is this line a signal about future troop levels? Is that paragraph a veiled play for bipartisan support on health care? Is the tone appropriately pastoral in this section and sufficiently martial in the next? TV's original power was its immediacy, its you-are-there quality. More and more, it seeks instead to mediate. A nation of citizens is invited to become a culture of critics.
For this reason, distant viewers were even more removed from the estimated 15,000 soldiers and civilians who gathered under clear Texas skies to hear the prayers, hymns and speeches in person. While their grief was more hard-earned, their experience was more authentic. They waited for the beginning of the service in appropriate silence - a fact the television commentators could hardly stop talking about.
Von Drehle skipped over the fact that two broadcast network news divisions thought the "prayers, hymns, and speeches" at Fort Hood were all un-newsworthy except for Obama's remarks.
- Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.