- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

His first televised prime-time press conference drew 50 million viewers. He’s chummy with Katie Couric, gets glib at town hall meetings, casts benign favor on bloggers and one day, perhaps, he’ll have a beer with Sean Hannity.

But beyond the tender showcase moments on camera, relations between President Obama and the habitually combative press have gotten dicey as the news narrative “turns bearish” on the president, says a Project for Excellence in Journalism report released Tuesday.

Intense coverage of the economic crisis plus close scrutiny of Mr. Obama’s Cabinet choices have combined into a double whammy of sorts.

“Two different stories combined to create one major media narrative last week - a new president off to a shaky start,” said Mark Jurkowitz , associate director of the research group.

The economy took up 44 percent of total press coverage last week - with another 17 percent focused on the new administration.

Super Bowl, Iraq and Afghanistan stories weighed in at less than 5 percent each.

“If the storyline seemed to pivot dramatically from a heady inauguration to a rocky transition, that sense was significantly magnified by the two platforms offering instant updates of the Beltway scoreboard, and both of them now firmly ideological,” Mr. Jurkowitz said.

“On cable news, a dominant theme among talking heads was Obama stumbling at the starting gate. On talk radio, conservative hosts grew even more aggressive in staking out their opposition to the new president.”

Yet Mr. Obama does not seem particularly phased by contentious journalists.

He answered just 13 questions, employing studied gravitas during his first televised prime-time press conference Monday night - an event that drew 50 million broadcast and cable TV viewers, according to Nielsen - besting last month’s season premiere of “American Idol” by 20 million people.

Mr. Obama made a singular point to take a question from Sam Stein, a Huffington Post blogger - thus formally elevating cheeky new media into a White House stratosphere once occupied by traditional scribes and broadcasters alone.

“Are you willing to rule out - right here and now - any prosecution of Bush administration officials?” Mr. Stein asked.

“My general orientation is to say let´s get it right moving forward,” Mr. Obama replied, relying on a motto that has propelled him through all sorts of quagmires since his campaign began two years ago.

The Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Time and Newsweek were among news organizations that were not granted questions.

The president has not been tripped up by the demanding public, either.

“His opinion of me isn’t very high, but I’m always good for a beer,” Mr. Obama blithely told a woman at an Indiana town-hall meeting who suggested he share a brew with Mr. Hannity, the Fox News host.

Ever eager to frame the Obama presidency in a populist mode, the White House Web site offered “live-blogging” of the president’s appearance in Florida on Tuesday, mingling a real-time running transcript of his speech with assorted anonymous blogger commentary - including a dispatch that read “A woman in the crowd asks for assistance, President embraces her.”

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