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What can Barack Obama say to convince America he's handling oil spill?



Obama_gulf-speech Operation Convince America has begun.

By the time President Obama speaks to the nation at 8 this evening, many of the pieces will be in place.

He will have visited three states and met with the relatives of those who died when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, producing the geyser of crude which has fouled the Gulf of Mexico for nearly two months straight.

An admiral has already sent a letter to BP demanding more aggressive efforts to siphon oil from the spill. Nevermind that the company has been cast as the devil incarnate for weeks now; the government has now demanded they figure this out in writing.

And a meeting has been scheduled Wednesday with BP executives, including so-detached-he's-batty CEO Tony Hayward. At this meeting, the president is expected to press for an independent claims process to handle the deluge of complaints about lost business and wages due to the spill.

Obama_camardelle So now the question remains: What can the president say in an address to the nation tonight that will convince us all he's handling this? Or at least trying very hard? (He better be amazing; a recent poll shows 71 percent of Americans think the president has been too soft on BP during this crisis)

What the media should be doing right now, is teasing out that very question: How much of this disaster is the result of inadequate safeguards (BP's fault), slow and disorganized response (government's fault) and the sad realities of our current technological limitations (nobody's fault)? Basically, the public wants to know: Whose ass should we kick?

The New York Times had a interesting Sunday story on the chaotic oil containment efforts, noting that the unexpectedly large spill has been met with a disorganized effort with no clear lines of authority and ill-prepared plans. 

But a look at the Sunday TV news shows revealed a litany of local, state and federal officials pointing fingers in all directions with little incisive questioning from anchors.

Oil-spills-the-media-and-industry_1 There was GOP Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, making the case that the government isn't moving fast enough to contain a historic spill no one really knows how to handle, moments before criticizing the Democratic administration for pressing a moratorium on such deep well drilling to make sure there aren't more Deepwater Horizons out there.

There was a local Louisiana official criticizing the Coast Guard for taking oil containment boom his area needed for use somewhere else -- even though the point of a unified spill response effort spanning several states is to shift resources where they may be most needed.

Elsewhere, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper complained that BP officials wouldn't go on his show -- though the "keepin' them honest" tagline, developed during coverage of the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has turned his show into a regular soapbox for people to vent their anger at BP, the government and any other institution they think has failed them during this crisis. Not surprised BP sees no upside in facing that meat grinder.

What we need, especially from our TV people offering live coverage, is smart questions challenging the assumptions and motives of anyone in the middle of this mess. Politicians should get tough queries about how their complaints also help them politically; government officials should get fact-based challenges on their explanations and BP officials should get an unrelenting skepticism worthy of their misdirections and mistakes.

No more channeling emotion mostly for emotion's sake. It's time for journalists to calmly and methodically peel back the public relations spin from the real efforts to help.

No matter what the president says tonight, that's a solution well within the grasp of our media.

[Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:15pm]


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