Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When a sip of water gets more attention than a president

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1219 GMT (2019 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: After Obama's State of the Union, media hardly scrutinized major proposals
  • Kurtz: Run-up to speech dominated by big shootout, a local story made national
  • The next day, he says, media obsessed over Marco Rubio's sip of water
  • Kurtz: Cruise ship and meteor took precedence over issues that affect Americans

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Remember the State of the Union?

It was a speech, a long one, that President Barack Obama delivered to Congress. Happened a week ago. Was carried on television. Lasted more than an hour.

Now you might think that the media would be scrutinizing and analyzing the president's proposals, or at least the politics. Can we afford universal prekindergarten? Would a $9 minimum wage hurt small business? What about creating a job corps to rebuild crumbling bridges? Should we reduce our nuclear arsenal in talks with the Russians?

Watch: Should press have been barred from president's outing with Tiger Woods?

With some exceptions, mainly in a couple of top newspapers, these stories never materialized. There were some insta-appraisals of Obama's speechifying and how he fared in a snap poll. Even the most passionate part of the speech -- his appeal that Gabby Giffords, Newtown and others are owed a vote on gun control -- was assessed mainly for its theatrical value. And within a day, it was like the speech never happened.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Let's take a moment to figure out why.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The run-up to the speech, when the pundits weigh in about the president's strategy and political prospects, was utterly obliterated. Instead, the cable news channels went almost wall-to-wall with the California shootout involving accused cop-killer Christopher Dorner.

Watch: How did Washington Post get the Sarah Palin story so wrong?

This was a dramatic scene, to be sure, as the former LAPD officer was hunted down, killed another officer and then was trapped in a burning cabin hideaway. He'd also gained notoriety with a manifesto sounding off on everyone from pols to pundits.

Hours went by with no new information about the standoff, leaving the anchors and correspondents filling time while looking at the same static shot of the cabin. But no one wanted to break away for long and talk about the far less exciting subject of Washington politics. No sooner did Obama wrap up his speech than the anchors raced to tell us that Dorner was believed dead. It was a local news crime story given a national platform.

Watch: Danica Patrick's TV blitz: Is Indy 500 racer exploiting her gender?

Obama: Harvest immigrants' talents
Obama: We must act on climate change

As for the next-day political coverage of the State of the Union, it was dominated, and I don't use that word lightly, by Marco Rubio's sip of water. I would venture to say that the Florida senator's reach for the water bottle during his response to the president garnered more attention than all of Obama's proposals put together.

The water-gate brouhaha began on Twitter, spread across the Web and was replayed endlessly on television. This was, of course, blatantly unfair to Rubio. He was thirsty and drank a little water, hardly a huge deal.

But it also demonstrated how the media are driving us to distraction with silly sidebars, reducing entire presidential debates to Big Bird, bayonets and binders full of women. The economic costs and benefits of the minimum wage are complicated. A dip into Poland Spring is easy.

Watch: An inside look at Vatican leaks, and why the pope tapped Fox reporter

By late in the week, TV had decamped to other, more visual tales. CNN, with exclusive video, went wall-to-wall for a day with the disabled Carnival cruise ship limping to port, a legitimate story affecting more than 4,000 people but dismissed by some critics as overplayed. Then it was on to the meteor that hit Russia, blowing out windows and injuring more than 1,000 people in an unprovoked attack from outer space.

Will Cain, writer for TheBlaze.com, told me on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that the media have been "intellectually neutered" because "we don't hire people who are capable of looking deeper into the issues," preferring former political strategists and reporters. He was talking about television, and he has a point. But the problem goes beyond personnel decisions.

I get that presidential speeches aren't as compelling as a cabin turned into an inferno. But Obama talked about issues -- jobs, schools, guns, immigration -- that actually affect people's lives. Much of the mainstream media, unfortunately, seems to have lost interest in covering the meat and potatoes of government. And that makes me want to drink something stronger than water.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT