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A Modern Media President: Sinking or Swimming in the Age of Never-ending News

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 26 2010

"After President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis, in October, 1962, 'the networks immediately went to their normal programming.'" That's the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, quoting historian Michael Beschloss, in meaty piece (subscription/purchase only) about what it means to be a President of the United States and to run a White House in a media environment where Kennedy's message to the country about the face off with the Soviet Union would be followed, in seconds, by a flood of TV and web commentary. Auletta describes the web-driven information world where the idea of news "cycles" has been largely replaced by a broad and unceasing river of information. It's well, well worth breaking away from Twitter and Facebook to give Auletta's New Yorker piece on the Obama White House and the media a read.

The picture Auletta paints is particularly good context for an idea we mentioned earlier today: that the White House's rollout of a two-way YouTube component around Wednesday night's State of the Union makes sense as part of a broader attempt by the Obama administration to find its footing in that stream -- something that Auletta's piece suggests that this White House well knows it has to do, and do soon. The reaction to the Great Return of David Plouffe has been mostly overheated. But where it does seem significant is where be accompanied by the same sort of White House savvy in understanding how news stories and media narratives evolve today as we saw in the Obama campaign.

(If you only have a few seconds to spare before you move on to the next chunk of information, and want to get a quick lay of the land, zero on on the section in Auletta's piece about the frenzied work-day flow NBC's Chuck Todd.)

A deeply-rooted feel for the unique shape of modern "news," for lack of a better and more inclusive word, is a characteristics that the Obama White House hasn't demonstrated nearly as strongly as the Obama campaign did. Auletta runs through Obama's Philadelphia race speech and its subsequent YouTube virality, the campaign's nuanced reaction to the Clinton campaign's attacks, and other greatest hits from Obama campaign's smart negotiation of the information landscape in the 2008 race. Of course, the conditions have been much different, and arguably much more difficult. But it's worth something that the embodiment of the Obama campaign's approach to world of information might have been campaign manager Plouffe, and in the Obama administration, it's been White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Here's Auletta:

"The press office has an adjunct in Rahm Emanuel, who is unusually active in the media. 'He sees it as a political strategy,' Peter Baker says. 'He's as relentless in working reporters as he is in working congressmen. He cajoles, lobbies, berates, and trades information, because he understands it's better to work the media than to shut us out."

"Working the media" isn't what it once was, and that approach, while perhaps winning some positive commentary in some established outlets, arguably hasn't served the White House all that well. Give Auletta's piece a read to more deeply understand why it hasn't.