One day before the Obama era begins, can the press keep perspective?
It's tough to avoid the celebratory tone drenching the media these last few days, from the soaring inaugural celebration telecast by HBO on Sunday to the continuous coverage on the cable TV newschannels leading to Tuesday's noon event. It's a milestone for this country, which gets its first president of color, coming one day after the birthday of a black leader killed while pursuing the kind of laws to make Obama's ascension possible.
He's also considered America's best bet for climbing out of all the holes the current administration has sunk us in -- from world condemnation for war in Iraq and attempts to sanction torture of suspected terrorists, to the economic crisis grinding down our biggest businesses. Who doesn't want someone to swoop in and right the listing ship of state -- especially media companies taking million-dollar hits as big-ticket advertisers such as Circuit City bite the dust?
But Obama is still a politician. And, as Hillary Clinton and John McCain discovered to their own dismay, quite a smart, tough and effective one. Which means that, no matter how much we who have chronicled his amazing rise might feel heartened by the symbolism of his success, we'll have to work hard to avoid the kind of cheerleading that made past government excesses possible in different times.
Some writers are already asking why the invocation by the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson, wasn't included in HBO's coverage of Sunday's celebratory concert We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration. Were Robinson's remarks, which came about 15 minutes before the rest of the event began, ever intended to be a part of the program determined by Obama's inaugural committee?
And if not -- given that Obama has already stirred controversy by having a pastor who opposes gay marriage kick off his actual inauguration -- why not?
The Washington Post, in particular, is also asking whether the Obama camp should have sold exclusive TV rights for the inauguration to a small group of TV outlets for $5-million. Regardless of the revenue it generates, shouldn't this sort of event be open to all news outlets -- or at least all major news outlets -- as an event that the entire country has a stake in?
And, at the risk of looking like a suck-up, I'll give a shout out to the St. Petersburg Times' own Web site Politifact, which garnered nationwide attention Thursday after rebranding itself with a new mission: keeping track of whether Obama has fulfilled some 500 or so promises he made during his campaign.
I suspect the exultation over Obama's historic achievements will mute most of these admittedly smaller concerns. But we can't let our pride over the symbolism of this moment blind us to the reality: we have elected a politician.
And, like all good politicians, he deserves our skepticism and critical eye as much as our support and good wishes. With any luck, media outlets will learn that lesson quickly, and help keep us all on the right track.
Here's the invocation that was missing from HBO's broadcast if you're interested:*