On Saturday GMA, Obama's 'Personality' at Press Conference Admired While Substance Ignored

President Obama held a press conference Friday in which he called for stricter controls over the government’s domestic surveillance system and commented on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But to ABC’s Good Morning America, those developments were not the primary news. Their main takeaway was that the president showed personality.

Seriously, that was the angle that Saturday's GMA took on this story. Anchor Dan Harris set ABC's premise right at the top: “Switching gears now to all the chatter this morning about President Obama showing a different and very interesting side of his personality in a high-profile moment in front of the assembled White House press corps on Friday afternoon.”


Senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who delivered the story, joined Harris in praising Obama’s candid, freewheeling style: “[A]fter a challenging summer in Washington, it was that series of unscripted moments that offered a deeper window into what he’s really thinking.”

Zeleny highlighted some of those “unscripted moments.” He played Obama’s remark that President Putin slouches “like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” He showed Obama expressing hope that some gay and lesbian athletes will win medals in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. And of course, he included the dishwashing analogy that Obama used to make a point about NSA domestic spying.

Zeleny praised Obama for the kind of unscripted comments that were often derided as “Bushisms” when uttered by Obama’s predecessor. The veteran journalist and New York Times alumnus declared: “It was a presidential play-by-play, a series of off-the-cuff remarks, in real time, and he didn't take it easy, even on himself, acknowledging serious kinks in the health care law.”

But the sound bite that Zeleny played to accompany that line did not show Obama discussing “serious kinks” in his health care law. It only showed the president rationalizing the inevitable problems with ObamaCare’s implementation: “There are going to be some glitches. No doubt about it. That's true, by the way, of a car company rolling out a new car. It's true of Apple rolling out the new iPad..”

Near the end of the report, Zeleny finally acknowledged the solemn side of the press conference: “Now, there were some serious moments, too. Of course the ongoing terror threats, that frigid relationship with Russia.” However, Zeleny then returned to frivolities: “But the president had a carefree look of someone about to leave for vacation.”

Harris got sucked into the triviality of it all as well. At the end of Zeleny’s report, he mused, “I’m trying to picture moments in Martha's Vineyard where he marches Michelle into the kitchen and shows off clean dishes.”

You would think that ABC, as one of the three major American broadcast networks, would have treated this story more seriously than it did. The press conference produced some major news. The president called for more transparency in our government’s domestic surveillance programs, and he hinted that Edward Snowden’s leaks may have prompted him to do so. He also claimed that his relationship with Putin is fine, even though it looks icy. He attacked Republican critics of his health care law, which ABC failed to point out.

CBS This Morning: Saturday and NBC’s Saturday edition of Today both ran stories that focused on the real news from Obama’s Friday press conference. But GMA couldn’t be bothered with the serious news, choosing to hone in on “presidential personality,” as the chyron during their story indicated. That ridiculous angle took a chunk out of their credibility as a news organization.

Below is a full transcript of the segment:

DAN HARRIS: Switching gears now to all the chatter this morning about President Obama showing a different and very interesting side of his personality in a high-profile moment in front of the assembled White House press corps on Friday afternoon. The president occasionally sort of cutting loose with candid comments about everybody from Vladimir Putin to Michelle Obama. ABC senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is here with more. This was the president without the prompter.



JEFF ZELENY: It really was. Good morning, guys. I mean, we saw hints of frustration and defiance from the president. But after a challenging summer in Washington, it was that series of unscripted moments that offered a deeper window into what he’s really thinking.

BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat.

ZELENY: In the running commentary, President Obama held nothing back. On Russian President Vladimir Putin –

OBAMA: He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.

ZELENY: On defying Russia’s new anti-gay law through Olympic medals –

OBAMA: One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then it’s probably going to make their team weaker.

ZELENY: And using domestic harmony as an analogy for the NSA's domestic spying program.

OBAMA: It’s right to ask questions about surveillance.

ZELENY: How Americans should trust but verify.

OBAMA: If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes – now granted, in the White House I don't do the dishes that much. But back in the day. And she's a little skeptical. I'd like her to trust me. But maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes.

ZELENY: President Obama came into the East Room of the White House to talk about America's surveillance system. But he also came armed with a set of awkward anecdotes and mixed metaphors. It was a presidential play-by-play, a series of off-the-cuff remarks, in real time, and he didn't take it easy, even on himself, acknowledging serious kinks in the health care law.

OBAMA: There are going to be some glitches. No doubt about it. That's true, by the way, of a car company rolling out a new car. It's true of Apple rolling out the new iPad.

ZELENY: Before the hour was up, he even asked a question of his own, to a Wall Street Journal reporter, on the birth of her son.

OBAMA: And Carol, congratulations on Hudson. Do you have pictures?

ZELENY: Now, there were some serious moments, too. Of course the ongoing terror threats, that frigid relationship with Russia. But the president had a carefree look of someone about to leave for vacation. He and his family begin their summer break today on Martha's Vineyard. But when he returns to Washington, Dan and Bianna, all those challenges, they’re still waiting for him.

HARRIS: I’m trying to picture moments in Martha's Vineyard where he marches Michelle into the kitchen and shows off clean dishes.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA: I’m also curious to hear what Putin has to say about the slouched bored kid comment as well.

ZELENY: The translation of that must have been interesting.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, I'll do that for you next time.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.