- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER column:

The normally savvy media mavens on Team Obama blundered badly on the opening day of his European trip, scheduling his only open event for 5:15 a.m. EDT, which forced the mainstream and cable morning news programs to fill endless hours showing live protests in London and discussing first lady Michelle Obama’s “green pencil skirt.”

Unlike President Bush’s White House communications team, which usually timed press conferences abroad to coincide with the U.S. morning programs, the Obama operation began the president’s first day of his first trip abroad while most Americans were still asleep. What’s more, the president banned most reporters from nearly every event he held on a day heavy with bilateral talks with foreign leaders, and even held U.S. cameras at bay for his visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen.

As a result, the 24-hour cable shows began their morning programs with endless footage of hooligans clashing with British bobbies, a scene that played out all day on television.

“They’re the only pictures being shown out of London right now,” said Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent. CNN anchor Christine Romans assured viewers, “There’s a lot of other hard work going on behind closed doors,” although a split-screen showed only the raging protest in the streets of the city’s financial district.

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With virtually no news to cover, reporters spending thousands of dollars to tag along on the trip were left with little to do. The Obama team offered up top officials to brief the bored press, but then banned cameras and demanded the men be identified only as “senior administration officials” - following in the venerable tradition of past administrations, Democratic and Republican.

Still, few reporters left the Thistle Marble Arch press hotel off Oxford Street and ventured out to where the news was happening. ABC’s prime-time anchor, Charlie Gibson, appeared live from the edge of the Thames, miles from the action. NBC’s news team members all appeared to be near the Tower Bridge, which they used as a backdrop.

CNN reporter Suzanne Malveaux reported from the Thistle, and ABC’s top White House reporter, Jake Tapper, did his morning live shots from what looked like a sidewalk somewhere in the city.

For some reason, the press corps that loved to show thousands protesting former President Bush didn’t much want to cover the melee this time. Fox News’ Stuart Varney offered a theory: “We used to think they hated America because of George Bush, but in fact they just hate America.”

But the network producers back in New York couldn’t stay away for long. While NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell mused about tea and crumpets with the queen, pictures of protesters smashing bank windows streamed live.

By 9 a.m., TV viewers had seen the face of one bloodied street combatant dozens of times, with only scant coverage of Mr. Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown holding an early morning press conference. While the president met with his Russian and Chinese counterparts, the White House would allow only a “travel pool spray at top” - which translates as more canned remarks before the important meetings took place.

And the sprays weren’t live, anyway, but shot on tape and played later. The networks quickly abandoned them. Shortly after MSNBC began to air an earlier tape of Mr. Obama meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the network pulled the plug in the middle of the president speaking, cutting back to live shots of the protests.

When the networks weren’t showing rampaging ruffians, there was only breathless talk of Mrs. Obama’s attire, from her mustard-yellow Jason Wu dress to her green pencil skirt and “cream-colored sparkly cardigan from J. Crew.” MSNBC even trotted out a fashion expert to discuss the first lady’s newsworthy decision to change clothes aboard Air Force One.