Listening Post
Sending the right message
Barack Obama's first overseas trip as president saw a change in media strategy.
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2009 08:46 GMT

Experts say Obama's priority was to engage "normal people" [AFP]

With his first overseas trip as US president at an end, The Listening Post's Richard Gizbert finds that Barack Obama's policy towards the media contains plenty of style and perhaps a little less substance.

It began with a high-profile economic summit convened to prevent the world from economic meltdown and ended with a flying visit to assess a US-led mission that remains unaccomplished after six years.

But while London and Baghdad provided the bookends to Barack Obama's first major overseas trip as US president, the interesting reading came in between them.

Obama used a visit to the Turkish city of Istanbul to state that the US "is not and will never be at war with Islam".

According to Adam Boulton, the political editor of UK-based Sky News, the new president recognises that there is an urgent need for the US to press the "reset button" with the Islamic world.

"If you said to me, you know that first trip abroad, what was the most important part of it, I genuinely think that probably the most important part of it was the visit to Turkey," he says.

"All of that the Turkish media will cover, and in covering it he'll get his message across, that's why he puts so much effort into it."

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Media analysts say the fact that Obama went to a secular country aspiring to join the European Union, but with a Muslim majority population was seen as a very positive move in the Arab media and among the Arab and Muslim public to engage with the Muslim world.

It was also seen as a clear and purposeful diversion from the methods of his predecessor.

"The Arab media, in particular on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but also other main newspapers, Arab newspapers, picked up very clearly the clear, key message from Obama," Fadi Hakura, an Arab media expert, says.

"The key sound bite was that the United States is not, nor will it be at war with Islam. It was repeated again and again, and contrasted with the messages of former President Bush."

'Healthy scepticism'

Obama clearly has a strategy in mind for the Arab and Muslim media. It is significant that his first formal interview as president was not with CNN or The New York Times.

It was with Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel.

But despite initially encouraging noises from the Arab media, Hakura says there is still a long way for the new president to go before he fully heals old wounds.

"One can see a healthy scepticism and in some cases, a deep scepticism in the Arab media," he says.

"For example will the US policies change towards the Middle East? Will Obama conduct serious negotiations with Iran to resolve the nuclear issue, or is it really that President Obama is following similar policies, foreign policies to George W. Bush, but with a different face?"

Obama's first trip overseas echoed his themes of modernity and change, from an innovative gift of an Ipod to the British queen to his treatment of the press.

In media terms - there has never been an official trip like it – mixing speeches to foreign crowds with 'town hall' style meetings and set piece photo opportunities. There was not a single one-on-one interview.

On such a trip, hundreds of requests for a presidential face-to-face will have been lodged. Every one was refused.

"It's important to note that President Obama did not court the European media, he didn't do interviews, television interviews, in advance, he did very limited news conferences," Boulton says.

"Instead what he did was stick to his schedule, give the speeches he intended to give, have the meetings and the photo opportunities that he planned."

Normal people
Those meetings consisted of an informal gathering in France with French and German students, and another in Turkey.

"He was trying to talk to what he calls normal, you know, people which I think is quite clever," Nicolas Bellet, of the French channel TF1, says.

It went down very well in France. The whole thing lasted for more than an hour and journalists were deprived of their traditional press conference.

"On the other hand all they had to use were the sound bites from these town hall meetings, so the normal crowd were happy to see him and the journalists got the message."

The international media got no one on one time with the new president [AFP]
Similarly favourable coverage could be found in the major newspapers in Turkey and there was no shortage of media sideshows including Michelle Obama's tactile, protocol-busting encounter with the British monarch.

The media were forced to feed on these distractions, partly because they lacked much access to Obama.

Conversely this meant that there was actually little real challenging questioning of the president, particularly on the manifest differences that exist between what the US is demanding on economic and security issues and what Europe is willing to agree to.

"I think there was relatively little coverage of policy, partly because on one wanted to shatter the dream," Boulton says.

"No-one actually wanted to admit that really Europe wasn't coming together with America, wasn't giving more troops to Afghanistan.

"So there was an awful lot of coverage of pretty pictures of the president and his wife with other leaders, an awful lot of touchy-feely stuff about the sort of mood that Barack Obama engendered."

Nicolas Bellet admits that the French, the public in particular, were charmed by Obama but the press remained cautious.

"I wouldn't say sceptical, they were just doing their job and explaining that major differences are going to raise between Europe and the US," he says.

But at least the French and the Americans are talking about their differences, which was not always the case under Bush.

Much of the media coverage of the trip was touchy-feely, long on the feel good factor, short on access and substance.

Over eight days of this road test, the European and Middle Eastern media barely got to kick the tires of the Obama bandwagon. But they already like it better than the old model.

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