Sunday, April 12, 2009

White House Media Pack Goes Diddley Over Bo

As Cesar Millan, the world’s best known dog whisperer, often reminds people with problem pooches, “a dog doesn’t know or care if it lives in a shack or The White House.”

But don’t try telling this to The Washington Post, AP, New York Times and the rest of the media pack that refuses to stay calm and relaxed over weekend rumours that the new First Puppy – a Portuguese water dog named Bo – arrives Tuesday. Their insecurity turned them into yipping, tail-chasing creatures, each trying to become pack leader.

Sunday’s Times covers the story as if it involves a huge national security leak, picking up an AP lead and quoting a “White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity ...”

Wait. Hold it right there.

Policies at both the wire service and the newspaper on using anonymous sources specifically states that doing so is limited to situations involving major news only when the news could not have been learned in any other way. I’m not sure a new puppy meets the guidelines. But Michelle Obama had given the Post “exclusive” rights to the story so everyone else was left fighting over scraps like junk yard dogs.

Apparently, this means anonymous source policies are discretionary. After all, news of a puppy is involved.

The Whole Poop

The Post reveals that the dog is named Bo, gushing “let it be noted that you learned that here first.” It even has a poll, asking readers if they think a photo accompanying the story is of the real pooch.

The Sunday Times does the Post one better, breathlessly providing the genealogy of the dog’s name.

“Obama's daughters chose the name Bo for the pup because first lady Michelle Obama’s father was nicknamed Diddley,” a premier blues and rock musician of the 1950s. The name makes sense, especially given how close the Obama daughters are to Michelle’s family. It’s certainly as rational as my naming our family’s first dog Tarzan because I wanted him to grow up to be strong; I was about Sasha Obama’s age when I named the German Boxer who graciously allowed us to live with him for the rest of his life.

But not content with a simple statement, the Times goes on to explain helpfully for any reader with no knowledge of music whatsoever that “The name for the dog was an apparent reference to the singer ‘Bo’ Diddley.”

Thank you very much. I think we figured that out on our own.

Meanwhile, the web went wild yesterday reporting rumours and displaying photos. Word spread from to and from there around the world.

A Bigger Story

There is a larger, more important, issue at stake here.

As a lifelong dog owner and journalist, I truly understand and empathise with the human interest value of covering two adorable kids who happen to live in The White House getting a new puppy. It sells newspapers and magazines, and boosts cable news ratings, at a time when drawing every possible reader and viewer counts more than ever. But, as a reporter, I also worry about priorities.

While newsworthy in itself, The Puppy Chronicles – an ongoing story since the primaries – also highlight how distorted the priorities of American journalism has become.

While photographers are dispatched and reporters are assigned to cover Bo, what other stories are not being covered? Stories such as despite the fact that the Dow rose somewhat in recent weeks, it does not mean the recession is over despite what CNBC’s Jim Kramer now proclaims with as much credibility as when he was touting Lehman Bros. just days before it tanked. Or stories about how Larry Summers was receiving consulting fees from hedge funds while he was president of Harvard University or lush speaking fees from Merrill Lynch during the transition, and how this may well be colouring the advice he’s giving the president about re-regulating the financial sector.

Even though sectarian violence keeps creeping up in Iraq and American casualties are rising in Afghanistan, the networks and most major media outlets have skeletal staffs in the war zones. Shrinking newsroom staffs at local newspapers and broadcasters means scant coverage is being given to the growing desperation and anxiety of ordinary people across the country left hopeless as the recession deepens – people who cannot feed themselves without help, let alone a puppy.

If only the Times and other news outlets had shown the same relentless digging and investigative prowess over WMD’s and “mushroom clouds” in covering pre-invasion Iraq, more than 4,000 young Americans and a half-million Iraqi’s still would be alive. As The Dog Whisperer himself might have said, “They could have provided stability if one had been calm and assertive, acting like a pack leader.”

Meanwhile, I wonder if the nation’s pack leader, Barack, and his family will bring in Cesar Millan so they know how to use exercise, discipline and affection to keep Bo from chewing on a leg of Lincoln’s bed.

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<< BO WATCH UPDATE >> Apparently, Bo is already at home with the Obama's. He will be introduced to reporters on Tuesday afternoon when, it is hoped, the dog will lift his leg to pee on Fox News White House correspondent Mike Emanuel's shoes.


SusanTheB said...

In all fairness to family, the “adults” were probably trying to keep it a surprise for the children. Too bad the press had to act like, well, dogs with a bone.

Lisa said...

A fun way to make a good point!