Getting a Grip on Chaos at the Breakfast Table

Even that has changed at the White House: President Obama reads the newspaper every morning. More than that: after his daily fitness training, still before breakfast, he and his wife and daughters go through several newspapers.

This dramatic break with the Bush years has received less attention than the proposed closure of Guantanamo Bay or the appointment of an envoy to the Middle East. But in the world of the printing press, where one is predisposed to positive news about one’s own sector, it was well-received. While in Asia half-a-day has already gone by, and while Europe is ahead by several hours, Mr. Cool is first going to take a look at what all is in the newspaper.

That, at least according to a description by the New York Times yesterday on the budding routine that is evolving in the White House. It is the kind of information that public relations officials like to provide journalists, who, in turn, are perhaps a little too eager to believe.

But, what do you want: everyone calls everyone, years after the number has been up for the printed media, and then suddenly you hear that the most popular man in the world, the man who will save the world, can not do without a newspaper. Look, reluctant advertisers, canceling subscribers, and newspaper-shy members of the YouTube generation: Somebody in the White House loves us!

Suspicion is a good journalistic instinct. “Even if your mother says she loves you,” was the motto that always hung on the wall of a legendary press agency in Chicago, “Check it out!”

If we assume that the Times did this, then the question is: why should a man who is so busy, who has surrounded himself with a team of top advisers, and who receives a CIA briefing every day, find it useful, or pleasant, or both, to start his day with a newspaper?

It can not have escaped him that even the quality press sometimes drops a stitch–sometimes even lets the run-up to a war go by without criticism. And the first articles that really attack him are already beginning to appear. And yet, every morning he has a stack of newspapers delivered.

It may be a matter of habit. Or, if he is not a morning person, it may be a way to get started without having to immediately talk. But let us be clear, he could also really believe that he can get something out of it. First, an impression of how his own actions come across. But in addition to this, a picture of how the country and the world are doing, an intermediate snapshot, put together during the past 24 hours, by fallible, but generally dedicated and often well-informed editors. It must also be said, even though it is not quite in the spirit of distance and objectivity that characterizes better journalism: of course, Obama reads the newspaper; he would fail himself and the rest of the world if he didn’t.

Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Clinton, once said that CIA reports usually “tell me what I have read in the Financial Times a few weeks ago.” Now, Talbot, a former journalist at TIME, was perhaps not entirely objective. But after “9/11,” we learned that the CIA, in any case, could be jealous of every newspaper that had a well-established correspondent in Afghanistan.

What Obama needs in the morning is overview, a grasp of the chaotic reality of the world that imposes itself as soon as he begins his workday in the Oval Office. And that’s exactly what the newspaper offers every day: the possibility to find out what’s going on, by leafing, reading, browsing for ten minutes, or half-an-hour or more. Not only what the top ten critical threats to the homeland are, potential wars and other disasters. But also a relaxed outline of daily life in Tehran, a view on the future of the light bulb, or a report from the city of Los Angeles, about the sports world, or Brussels–to name but a few. Everything that you may need in order to come to grips with the world and to sharpen your judgment.

Because, after all, that’s what the newspaper sells and what makes it valuable–for everyone who ever walks the street or takes part in life. The internet has an incredibly amount to offer, but also has much to learn from the newspaper–especially in providing an overview in a period of time that can be overseen. With the uncertainties in the financial crisis increasing every day, the need will grow to report, explain and analyze what is happening, also.

Not everyone is interested in the big, chaotic world around us, wrote the European diplomat Robert Cooper in 2003, but the chaos is interested in us. In other words, whether it is about the financial drama in Iceland or the insurgency in Afghanistan, we are affected by them, whether we like it or not. There isn’t a more exciting sequel.

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