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When a sip of water gets more attention than a president

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 7:19 AM EST, Tue February 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: After Obama's State of the Union, media hardly scrutinized major proposals
  • Kurtz: Run-up to speech dominated by big shootout, a local story made national
  • The next day, he says, media obsessed over Marco Rubio's sip of water
  • Kurtz: Cruise ship and meteor took precedence over issues that affect Americans

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Remember the State of the Union?

It was a speech, a long one, that President Barack Obama delivered to Congress. Happened a week ago. Was carried on television. Lasted more than an hour.

Now you might think that the media would be scrutinizing and analyzing the president's proposals, or at least the politics. Can we afford universal prekindergarten? Would a $9 minimum wage hurt small business? What about creating a job corps to rebuild crumbling bridges? Should we reduce our nuclear arsenal in talks with the Russians?

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With some exceptions, mainly in a couple of top newspapers, these stories never materialized. There were some insta-appraisals of Obama's speechifying and how he fared in a snap poll. Even the most passionate part of the speech -- his appeal that Gabby Giffords, Newtown and others are owed a vote on gun control -- was assessed mainly for its theatrical value. And within a day, it was like the speech never happened.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Let's take a moment to figure out why.

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The run-up to the speech, when the pundits weigh in about the president's strategy and political prospects, was utterly obliterated. Instead, the cable news channels went almost wall-to-wall with the California shootout involving accused cop-killer Christopher Dorner.

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This was a dramatic scene, to be sure, as the former LAPD officer was hunted down, killed another officer and then was trapped in a burning cabin hideaway. He'd also gained notoriety with a manifesto sounding off on everyone from pols to pundits.

Hours went by with no new information about the standoff, leaving the anchors and correspondents filling time while looking at the same static shot of the cabin. But no one wanted to break away for long and talk about the far less exciting subject of Washington politics. No sooner did Obama wrap up his speech than the anchors raced to tell us that Dorner was believed dead. It was a local news crime story given a national platform.

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As for the next-day political coverage of the State of the Union, it was dominated, and I don't use that word lightly, by Marco Rubio's sip of water. I would venture to say that the Florida senator's reach for the water bottle during his response to the president garnered more attention than all of Obama's proposals put together.

The water-gate brouhaha began on Twitter, spread across the Web and was replayed endlessly on television. This was, of course, blatantly unfair to Rubio. He was thirsty and drank a little water, hardly a huge deal.

But it also demonstrated how the media are driving us to distraction with silly sidebars, reducing entire presidential debates to Big Bird, bayonets and binders full of women. The economic costs and benefits of the minimum wage are complicated. A dip into Poland Spring is easy.

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By late in the week, TV had decamped to other, more visual tales. CNN, with exclusive video, went wall-to-wall for a day with the disabled Carnival cruise ship limping to port, a legitimate story affecting more than 4,000 people but dismissed by some critics as overplayed. Then it was on to the meteor that hit Russia, blowing out windows and injuring more than 1,000 people in an unprovoked attack from outer space.

Will Cain, writer for TheBlaze.com, told me on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that the media have been "intellectually neutered" because "we don't hire people who are capable of looking deeper into the issues," preferring former political strategists and reporters. He was talking about television, and he has a point. But the problem goes beyond personnel decisions.

I get that presidential speeches aren't as compelling as a cabin turned into an inferno. But Obama talked about issues -- jobs, schools, guns, immigration -- that actually affect people's lives. Much of the mainstream media, unfortunately, seems to have lost interest in covering the meat and potatoes of government. And that makes me want to drink something stronger than water.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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