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Obama's comments on Gates trump healthcare debate on some media outlets

July 23, 2009 | 10:44 am

President Obama commanded some prime-time television real estate Wednesday night to make his case for healthcare reform, but many news media outlets chose this morning to focus on another topic: Obama’s remark that the Cambridge, Mass., police “acted stupidly” in arresting an African American Harvard professor who broke into his own home.

Obama’s comments about Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- who was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct last week, charges that have since been dropped -- came in answer to the last question of his hourlong news conference.

The president acknowledged that he did not know all the facts in the case, but used it to highlight the issue of racial profiling.

“What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped . . . disproportionately," Obama said. "That's just a fact."

His remarks about Gates were the lead story on NBC’s “Today,” the most-watched morning news program, as well as ABC’s “Good Morning America.” That raised the hackles of some media critics, who said the weighty questions about the future of America’s healthcare system should have gotten bigger play.

“The decision of most of the newscasts today showed that exciting beats important,” wrote Time TV critic James Poniewozik.

St. Petersburg Times television critic Eric Deggans wrote that he found it astonishing that “Today,” “which still claims to be an arm of NBC News, would put bloviating about race issues raised by an offhand answer late in a press conference above a debate about health care that affects all Americans.”

Jim Bell, executive producer of “Today,” said he chose to make Obama’s comments on Gates the lead story about an hour before airtime.

“That story was fresher, more interesting and talkable,” Bell said. “The healthcare discussion has been going on for about a week and I’m not sure it’s any of those things now.”

“Healthcare is starting to feel old,” he said, adding that the show still devoted a sizable chunk of time to the subject today. “But it felt more urgent to lead with the other element. I think that’s the story that people are talking about today, and that’s frankly our mission.”

Jake Tapper, ABC’s senior White House correspondent, said he originally put Obama’s Gates remarks at the end of the piece he did for “Nightline” and “Good Morning America” about the healthcare news conference, then decided to flip the two elements.

“It was the only really new comment that he made last night,” Tapper said. “He was very good at staying on message and being disciplined about what he wanted to convey on healthcare reform. But at the end of the day, it’s the news, not the olds. This was new, and an important topic.”

“Certainly, the media covers frivolous topics, and certainly our priorities are not always in line with priorities of the American people, but I don’t think this an example of that,” he added, noting that ABC has devoted a substantial amount of airtime to the healthcare debate. “Racial profiling -- if you accept that that’s what happened in Cambridge -- is a very important issue for millions of Americans.”

If Obama’s main message of the night was overshadowed, he had only himself to blame, Tapper said.
“On the one hand, it was candid, it was human,” he said of the Gates comments. “But by the same token, if his purpose last night was to only focus on healthcare reform and have the coverage only be about healthcare reform, then yeah, it certainly distracted.”

"Today's" Bell agreed, noting that the president “used some language that made it to us more compelling a story this morning than if he had used less charged language.”

“To say they ‘acted stupidly’ -- that was a pretty strong statement,” Bell said. “It felt off the cuff and sparked an interesting discussion. Will it have legs tomorrow? Probably. I think it’s going to be in the cycle for the time being.”

Much of talk radio seized on the race issue as well. Rush Limbaugh, who despite railing exhaustively about the proposed Obama health plan for weeks, opened his nationally syndicated talk show today with a reference to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose racially inflammatory remarks almost derailed Obama’s candidacy last year. Limbaugh added that the president of the United States should not “descend” to comment on such local matters, particularly after acknowledging that he did not know all the details of the case.

-- Matea Gold

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