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 kicked off the president's first day in Britain while most Americans were still asleep. What's more, the president banned most reporters from nearly every event he held on a day busy with bilateral talks with foreign leaders, and even held cameras at bay for his visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen.
The 24-hour cable shows began their morning programs with endless footage of hooligans clashing with British bobbies.
"They're the only pictures being shown out of London right now," said Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent. But 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.
With virtually no news to cover, reporters spending thousands of dollars were left with little to do. The Obama team offered up top officials to brief the bored press, but then demanded they only be identified as "senior administration officials" and banned cameras.
Still, few reporters ventured out to where the news was happening. ABC's prime-time anchor appeared live from the shore of the Thames, with Big Ben as a backdrop. NBC's news team all appeared to be near the Tower Bridge, judging by their choice of background. While NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell talked tea and crumpets with the queen, pictures of protesters smashing bank windows streamed live. CNN reporter Suzanne Malveaux reported from the press corps hotel far from downtown.
And ABC's top White House reporter, Jake Tapper, apparently did his live shots from what appeared to be a sidewalk somewhere in the city.
By 9 a.m., TV viewers had seen the face of a 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 "travel pool sprays at top" -- which translates as only more canned remarks before the important meetings took place.
Even those sprays were live; shortly after MSNBC began to air the tape of Mr. Obama meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the network pulled the plug, cutting back to live shots of the protests.
When the networks weren't showing rampaging ruffians, there was 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 brought on a fashion expert to discuss the first lady's newsworthy decision to change clothes aboard Air Force One.
"I thought the mid-air change was absolutely fabulous!" gushed Shelly Branch. Asked by the female anchor about "these fashion dilemmas, how big a deal are these?" Miss Branch declared: "They're a big deal in how she is shaping her role as first lady." Never mind that Mrs. Obama is a Harvard graduate and former vice president of the University of Chicago hospitals.
Staying on important news, Miss Branch mused about the first lady's meeting with her French counterpart, former super model Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I have two words: Fashion smackdown!" the Wall Street Journal reporter said.
Despite the dearth of news, Mr. Obama decided to take two hours of downtime in the afternoon. But reporters have nothing else to look forward Wednesday: His visit to Buckingham Palace is closed to reporters, as is the reception there and a later dinner at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence.