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Obama: Massaging the Message?

In the age of Obama, politics has become hot copy for television news. With the country enmeshed in two wars and myriad domestic crises, the media friendly president has become a reliable ratings generator for a beleaguered industry. And the White House media apparatus has used every opportunity to put the president unfiltered in front of the American people.Since he took office, the president has had multiple primetime press conferences that have been carried live across many broadcast and cable networks. On March 29, an Obama presser outdrew ratings juggernaut American Idol to become the most-watched program of the week attracting more than 40 million viewers across several networks (and nearly 30 million on the four broadcast networks alone).

The president’s latest primetime dissertation on April 29, while still a ratings success drew fewer viewers - it was down 29% - and one dissenter. Fox stuck with regular entertainment programming that included Idol. And so the White House media strategy seems to have shifted from a blanket approach to a more targeted tactic.

So far, that strategy has proved successful. NBC News’ recent two-hour, two-night Inside the Obama White House special attracted approximately 9 million viewers for each installment, and won its time period on the first night. Next week, ABC News gets its bite at the apple with a primetime health care special featuring a town hall with the president. And CBS News’ Katie Couric is sure to get her turn soon.

The ABC News special, which airs June 24 at 10 p.m. and will be co-anchored by Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, will get the usual cross-platform, multi-broadcast promotion. Gibson will anchor World News from the Blue Room of the White House that night. Portions of the town hall will air on Nightline that same evening. And Sawyer will have a one-on-one with Obama on Good Morning America on June 25.

ABC News immediately came under fire from the Republican National Committee. RNC chief of staff Ken McKay fired off a letter to ABC News President David Westin on June 15 expressing his concern over the news division’s “astonishing decision to exclude opposing voices” and asserting that the event may amount to a “glorified infomercial” for the Obama health care plan.

The RNC, wrote McKay, “requested an opportunity to add our party’s views to those of the president’s to ensure that all sides of the health care reform debate are presented. Our request was denied.”

ABC News Senior VP Kerry Smith responded to the RNC in her own letter, noting that McKay raised “a number of false premises,” including, apparently, the specter of editorial interference from the Democratic administration.

“Like any programs we broadcast, ABC News will have complete editorial control. To suggest otherwise is quite unfair to both our journalists and our audience,” Smith wrote.

Smith further asserted that all sides of the health care debate will be represented in next week’s town hall as they have previously. “There already has been extensive coverage of the upcoming health care debates, on ABC and elsewhere, and there will be much, much more. Indeed, we’ve already had many critics of the president’s health care proposals on the air - and that’s before a real plan has even been put before the country.”

No network is going to decline White House access. And it’s hardly surprising that an opposition party is hurling accusations of bias.

In fact, it is a violation of ABC News standards to cede editorial control to interview subjects. And the town hall is not new to the network; Ted Koppel was a master of the egalitarian conceit.

Universal health care, and how to pay for it, is the latest political hot potato. And the Obama media apparatus is nothing if not adept at disseminating its message.

And in this TV economy, what news organization is going to pass on access and the eyeballs that come with it?