Thursday, April 8, 2010

Press Releases: Tree party

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It was, quite obviously, big news when President Barack Obama came to town last week. Even the Bangor Daily News sent a pair of reporters to explore the Portland Expo, while the New York Times sent a correspondent across the street, where health care was actually being delivered to those in need.

Gallons of ink were spilled writing about Obama’s visit, the politics of his health-care package, and the Tea Partiers across the street with bells to “let freedom ring” (even though some of them admitted the din was annoying), but it took the sense and presence of mind of an outside publication to look the other way — to see that the story was not Obama, but was the people the health-care package is intended to help. Sadly for an industry that keeps chanting “local local local,” the national view was sharper, clearer, and ultimately more satisfying.

When newspapers that are struggling for existence claim to provide information nobody else does, they need to keep in mind that it also has to be information someone actually cares about.

Of course, when the president comes to town, there’s lots of excitement and hoopla, especially when he’s coming to thank the local representatives for their votes on reform and to pressure the local senators to be wary of their party’s growing efforts to repeal it. (There’s also a whole lot of overtime pay for police officers — though nobody, until now, has reported that the exact amount will be available on Wednesday.)

And indeed the local media did a decent job of covering the goings-on inside the Expo, with Obama’s supporters, as well as outside, where more supporters demonstrated, as did opponents of the president and his policies.

Unsurprisingly, the Portland Press Herald did the most voluminous job, publishing eight related stories on the day after visit — detailing (among many other factoids) the Maine connections of the helicopter pilot who flew Obama into the Portland Jetport, the long waits to be in the audience, the disappointment of some who were not allowed in, the unsubstantiated and unchallenged complaints of the Tea Partiers protesting outside, the excitement of a Portland Red Claws player who got tickets to the event, the gifts that Governor John Baldacci — and a Fort Kent man — offered the president, and even a vague note that the Secret Service “took over” a building at the Jetport as part of the visit’s security precautions. There was a political-reaction piece in which Republican Senator Olympia Snowe revisited her recurring unspecific gripes about the bill, which she helped craft but ultimately voted against. There was also an “analysis” piece that did synthesize points from various sources and events, but nevertheless failed to add substantively to the debate that has occurred non-stop for months now.

For analysis, the place to go was a short article in the Christian Science Monitor by Portlander Colin Woodard, which offered the political explanation with a clarity everyone else lacked: “Obama won’t win any elections for Democrats this fall by coming here. ... But if the White House was looking for friendly turf in a rural, relatively poor, and overwhelmingly white state, it chose the right place,” noting that Democrats run state government and are only opposed in Portland’s city government by the left, not the right.

And for real impact, it was the Times’s piece (Dan Barry’s “Health Care For All, With Obama Down The Street”) that described the dire needs facing many Americans with no health insurance coverage, discussed what was already being done (under the stimulus package) to help fix the country’s broken health-care system, showed the changes already wrought from those changes, and suggested developments that might occur as a result of the reform bill.

It can indeed be very hard to see the forest for the trees. But if you report on the trees and not the forest, your audience knows the difference.