Shana Pearlman, author of The Palin Effect, on why the media's obsession with policy-free, cutesy gimmicks means they're failing to properly hold Obama's administration to account.

Last week President Obama’s playlist was released on Spotify, purporting to reveal the leader of the Western World’s taste in music. The playlist is somewhat eclectic, including everything from Booker T & the MGs to Wilco to U2 to Hootie & the Blowfish alum Darius Rucker. Hipsters despaired that the President apparently listens to Arcade Fire.

But what was really interesting is the way self-identified, sober media outlets, who pride themselves on offering considered analysis and serious thinking – The Guardian, the Huffington Post, The Week, the New York Times – combed through the playlist like 15-year-old-girls, hoping to glean from it any sign of what their not-so-secret crush was really thinking. ‘Obama is going for a populist, embrace-all-comers vibe,’ gushed The Guardian. ‘Obama’s shifted from hope to rebound,’ swooned The Week. The New Yorker groused, like a spurned girlfriend, ‘where’s the hip-hop?’

It was sweet that journalists got the opportunity to relive their high school mixtape days, but despite the fact the story got over 2 million Google hits, it’s not even true. The playlist that was released on Spotify is the official campaign playlist, selected by Obama’s staff and revealing what will be played at official campaign events. It has nothing to do with what the President rocks out to in the Oval Office. Obama’s campaign staff revealed that the playlist has ‘a few of the President’s favourites,’ but we have no idea which ones, or even if that statement has any accuracy at all. So if you’re trying to glean any kind of insight about President Obama from this Spotify playlist, you’d be better off watching a vulture pick at entrails for a few minutes.

But that doesn’t matter to sober, considered news outlets. After all, the presidential election is coming up and since it’s the largest, most expensive popularity contest in the world, the candidates have got to do anything they can to make themselves seem likeable and personable. The two Republican frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, are locked in a vicious struggle to see which one can come across as the most unappealing, so all the Obama campaign has to do, particularly with his natural support in the press, is do things that normal, likeable people would do, like release a Spotify playlist. The media eats it up because it’s cute, gets plenty of website hits and Facebook shares, and because you don’t need much policy knowledge to comment on it.


But President Obama is not your friend, and is facing some real policy problems that need serious attention and scrutiny from the American electorate. A record 1.2 million people dropped out of the labour force in a single month, January 2012, simply because there were no jobs to be had. Crony capitalism is a serious problem in this administration, according to the Washington Post, with nearly 3.9 billion dollars flowing in federal grants to companies owned by former Obama backers and advisors. This is the kind of thing that Rep. Nancy Pelosi was talking about when she promised to end the ‘culture of corruption’ in Washington. Syria is becoming an extremely serious foreign affairs problem, and blaming it on Israel isn’t going to make the ever-increasing body count go away. And whatever you might think of the flap about Obamacare requiring religious institutions to provide birth control to employees, despite their objections, what we have learned is that every employee in the country is now going to have to tell their employer their most intimate medical details. Whatever happened to personal privacy?

These are serious problems, but we, as an American electorate, and as a global informed populace, have not the slightest clue what Obama is doing about them or what he thinks about them. Instead we know that his campaign staff like Arcade Fire. This is an unacceptable situation if we care about good governance and the promises that Obama himself has made the American people. If Obama, like any politician, is reneging on his promises and not serving the American people to the best of his ability, we ought to demand that the media – whose job, after all, this is – to hold him accountable. We ought to say to all these sober, considered news outlets, don’t give us pablum about some Spotify playlist. Get off your duff, do your job, and get us the answers we need to make an intelligent decision about whether Obama is actually doing a good job solving the problems we currently face. But we owe it to ourselves, too, if we actually are interested in current affairs, to recognise campaign pablum for what it is, and to stop rewarding it with hits and shares. Demand more from the media, and more from yourself, and we may just find that we learn more – and get better politicians – as a result.