Obama Doesn't Watch TV News—Good

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A shot of an apparently rare moment in the president’s day. (White House photo)

In the previous note I mentioned a strange little controversy over President Obama's comment, in a supposedly off-the-record session (which I attended), that he “doesn't watch TV” or “doesn’t watch cable news” and therefore wasn’t initially in sync with the sky-is-falling saturation coverage cable outlets had given to the shootings in San Bernardino.

The controversy was strange at one level because of the backfiring effect of “off the record” rules. As explained earlier, the main justification for off-the-record sessions is to reduce the risk that a single phrase will taken out of context — “I voted for the bill, before I voted against it” — and thus become a “gaffe.” This time, the single “I don’t watch TV” phrase leaked anyway, and the larger context, which obviously I heard at the interview, remains off the record. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that the context could have involved Obama’s awareness of the jerky, crisis-to-crisis outlook conveyed by 24/7 news. In that case Obama’s no-TV comment might be part of a larger argument about how permanent-emergency coverage affects a society’s ability to figure out what to be afraid of, and how afraid to be. (For more in this vein, naturally I invite you to stroll back down memory lane to take a look at Breaking the News.) Hypothetically.

The larger strangeness was the miffed tone from much of the commentator class about the “no TV” admission. Who does this guy think he is? Talk about aloof! For the DC media culture, Obama’s comment carries an extra dose of status-offense, since “cable hits” are such an important part of modern journalistic branding and presence.

A reader from the West Coast tech world writes in with a reaction that parallels my own: That this supposed mis-step by Obama actually says something good about his understanding of his job. Over to the reader.

I am a life long Democrat from a pretty working class family.  We lived in [the San Fernando Valley] as children and my dad was a plumber.  I went to college, moved to San Jose in 1975 and enjoyed a very successful career in Silicon Valley, the fruits of which have allowed me to have an extended and comfortable retirement.  That is the background behind what I want to say next…

I never watch “cable news”.  Never.  Never.  Never.  That includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox.  The whole idea of “cable news" is toxic in my mind.  The first thing that I do when I get a new TV provider is to delete those channels from the list that I cycle thru when I do any channel surfing.

I also never watch most of the network news broadcasts and especially any of the Sunday morning chat shows.  I do watch the PBS News Hour, but only after recording it so that I can delete any segments where they have 2 people from opposite sides of some debate contradict each other.

Judging by the ratings that those channels get, I don’t think that I’m alone.  In my immediate circle of friends and family, I don’t know anyone who does watch that.  Neither my own kids, nor my step children have “cable TV” connections.  (That includes actual cables as well as satellite ones…)

“Cable news” is what we call in Silicon Valley a “push” technology.  I only use “pull” technology to get my information.  I have to do that to make up for the editorial control which disappeared from “cable news” long ago.  You have railed about the false equivalency problem at length, but that is only one of many sins of the modern “cable news” world.

Given all that, I am not shocked that Obama does not watch it either.  To me that is a sign of one reason I like him so much.

I have other things to say about the state of the Democratic Party, The Donald and more, but I don’t want to dilute this message.  Not watching “cable news” is not a bug, it’s a feature of a sane person.

I agree.


Or rather, I agree about the president — that I’m glad he’s not following these shows. I personally am exposed to more cable news than is healthy, often having it on as B-roll while I am doing other things. That’s partly habit (though I think I’ve broken the habit of turning a TV on when I walk into a hotel room) and partly because I feel that situational- awareness of the news environment is part of my job. On the other hand, my perma-resolution, to be re-upped once more for 2016, is to reduce screen time of all sorts in my life, and increase the time devoted to physical, printed reading matter and actual, living human beings. We’ll see.

Controlling how he spends his time and directs his attention is obviously a more consequential matter for a sitting president. For anyone in that job, the ability to make long-view judgments, which involves deliberately thinking beyond the chatter of the moment, is ultimately the most precious asset. Close behind in preciousness is developing a sense of which sources of info and advice are most reliable, and least likely to be distorted by personal vendettas, ideological preconceptions, hidden agendas, past positions, or any factor other than a desire to present a situation as clearly and fairly as possible. When we talk about presidents “learning” the job, we’re mainly talking about their deepening understanding of the kind of information and advice they need. Famous recent example: George W. Bush placing Dick Cheney and his perspectives at greater distance in the second term than in the first.

In short, the kind of information a president needs, and the kinds of people he needs to hear from, together are just about the opposite of how you’d choose a line-up for a “lively” or “Breaking Now!” news show. The kind of follow-up questioning you need to pursue has no relationship to the “and we’ll leave it there” sign-off from each few-minute segment of TV discussion. The range of options you need to consider very rarely matches the pro-vs-con of the standard talk show. And so on.

It’s one thing to be aware, as any leader must, of what everyone else is hearing and reading — and, in the leaked comment, Obama was saying that he realized he had been caught off-guard. It’s something different to expect that a sitting president would allow permanent-emergency chatter to be part of his normal workday. I don’t want a president who will spend much of his or her day in front of the TV.

Lots of other interesting Chessmaster-v-Pawn accounts have come in, but as the reader is sticking to one issue in his email, I will do so in this note too.