Monday, June 1, 2009

Easily Amazed? Brian Williams Finds It 'Unbelievable' to Watch Obama Eat M&Ms Inside the White House

NBC anchor Brian Williams has never been shy about how amazed he is by Barack Obama. But it is really "unbelievable" to be in the White House hallway while Obama walks by munching on M&Ms? In a brief Monday Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz promoting NBC’s latest Inside the White House special with the candy-munching president, Williams couldn’t keep the gush in check:

"There's stuff we've never seen of how the White House operates," he says. "We were pretty stunned at how much we were able to record and how natural events seemed to be."

He recalls "walking through the West Wing and Secretary Clinton drops by to see the president. To be in the hallway when the president walks by with a handful of M&Ms, popping them in his mouth as he goes to visit his chief of staff -- it was unbelievable. I don't think the expression 'took up residence' is hyperbolic." He also spent time with Michelle Obama and went out for burgers with the president.

Such specials are part of a 40-year NBC tradition, but Williams had to make the sale, a lobbying effort that began before the election. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel allowed the network to record some senior staff meetings but, says Williams, "Rahm closed the door in front of our crew eight times."

While such behind-the-scenes programs tend to be positive, Williams hopes to highlight the sacrifice involved in the demanding jobs so viewers "will see White House aides as people. There's emotion in it, pathos, personality."

NBC’s previous hour-long specials inside the White House have been generally greeted with more skepticism, that NBC is selling out its independence a bit to gain access. See how much more skeptical both Kurtz and Tom Brokaw seem in the Post of January 21, 2002, when George W. Bush granted access:

Tom Brokaw knew George W. Bush was putting on a show.

"It goes without saying that they don't wake up and say, 'Oh, my God. NBC is coming!' " Brokaw says. "They obviously arranged a very full day for him."

Brokaw spent last Thursday hanging with Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and the gang for an NBC special that was supposed to have been taped Sept. 18. Events intervened, and the anchor got to see the White House on a war footing -- which, as it turns out, helps explain why the president chose this moment to let the NBC crews in.

"They're concerned about the public drifting away from the mission of the war," Brokaw says. "This was an opportunity for them to kick-start it, to keep the country refocused."

George Bush may be no Martin Sheen, but he knows how to play to the cameras. "Inside the Real West Wing," which airs Wednesday night before the fictional version, will show Bush "in a pretty commanding fashion," Brokaw says.

What happens in these ventures might be best described as mutual manipulation. NBC needs access to assemble an hour-long narrative that can be sold to advertisers; the White House team gets to reach millions by staging day-long events while pretending that the camera operators and sound technicians aren't there.

Kurtz noticed that Bush was pressed on the notion that the press had gone easy on him:

Bush laughed at the notion that the press has gone easy on him during the war, arguing that he got roughed up over civilian casualties in Afghanistan and the initial lack of military progress, Brokaw recalls.

The political war over Enron was also a hot topic. "They were not overly defensive," Brokaw says of administration officials. "They've obviously got their message and they're working on it."

At the time, Brokaw praised the White House for being "very well run," which isn’t quite as positive as finding M&M munching an "unbelievable" sight.

—Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.