It's no surprise that the mainstream media are treating the latest policy moves by President Barack Obama as part of the strategic maneuvering supporting his reelection bid. Long ago, the big papers and TV stations stopped covering issues, choosing instead to cover what people said — with no further inquiry or explanation offered.
So the press response was predictable when President Obama told college students in North Carolina that he knew how crushing student debt has become — and how much worse it might get if Congress doesn't act to prevent new student loans from carrying 6.8-percent interest rates after July 1.
Obama said he and his wife had only paid off their last student loans eight years ago (in a stunningly fast 13 years post-law school), telling them he had "been in your shoes" and had a "mountain of debt" upon entering the workforce.
Rather than showing how desperate that means things are — even a man who becomes president struggles with student loans! — outlets as diverse as Fox News, the Washington Post, and BusinessWeek (among many others) painted that as pandering to young voters. After all, polling suggests young people may be angry enough at economic conditions to oppose the man they thronged to four years ago. (Have they heard about Mitt Romney yet, though?)
Perhaps it was pandering, to a degree. But Obama appears to actually want to bring public attention to this situation, which is a real crisis for actual Americans. Students are graduating saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and zero job prospects. Millions of Americans — including the president, it appears — are trying to start families and advance their careers while paying off the education that was supposed to unlock new opportunities but has instead become a yoke to be borne. This while banks are still paying less than 0.25 percent on their loans from the Federal Reserve.
But despite all these outrageously juicy items, the president knows it's hard to get mainstream journalist-stenographers to talk to actual people, unless something newsworthy happens directly to them.
So Obama took a page from the Occupy movement last week and highlighted actual people himself, who then suddenly were of interest to — and interviewed by — journalists. He picked his targets carefully. He made speeches at three big college campuses (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Iowa), stopped off afterward to chat one-on-one with several students, and held a conference call with student journalists. He also appeared on Jimmy Fallon's late-night TV show to talk about the issue. (And, showing his awareness of the media's lack of interest, he said nothing at all about student debt when talking directly to the media's glitterati during the White House Correspondents' Association's annual gala dinner.)
Sure enough, personal contact with the president got students' own experiences with debt into the news in a way that never would have happened if the journalists had been left to their own devices. Locally, Portland protesters associated with OccupyMaine got good attention from their rally in Monument Square objecting to the fact that student-loan debt was passing $1 trillion last week (higher even than Americans' famously massive credit-card debt).
Maybe it's not politicians who are "out of touch" after all — but rather the media.
• And for those of you with concerns about the local press being out of touch, don't miss the May 7 conversation called "The Intersection of Business and Media" at Portland's Holiday Inn by the Bay from 10 am to noon. It's free; register at voxglobal.com/mainemedia/ to hear views from many of Maine's key thinkers about journalism.