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Members of the media prepare to cover the inauguration of Barack Obama at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Members of the media prepare to cover the inauguration of Barack Obama at the Capitol on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
As the days waned before President Barack Obama's inauguration, media pundits fairly drowned us with allusions to the Civil War and to civil rights, to a New Deal and a New Frontier. There are echoes of them all, as the Obama team seems well aware.
But on Tuesday, anchors and analysts cast about, sometimes in unexpected ways, seeking to capture the moment.
NBC special correspondent Tom Brokaw reached back two decades to Eastern European countries' struggle to throw off Soviet domination. "It reminds me of the Velvet Revolution — I was in Prague when that happened, and Vaclav Havel was a generational leader," Brokaw said. "The streets were filled with joy."
CNN's John King turned to a regime change he witnessed in South Africa: the final sloughing off of the oppressive racial apartheid rule, with the election of Nelson Mandela. "As people watch this moment today," King told viewers, "You see African-Americans young and old — tears of joy streaming down their faces — that was very much what I saw in the streets of South Africa."
The images Tuesday were indeed astonishing, as some 2 million revelers packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The crowd was ready to party. Yet Obama quite somberly signaled he was ready to govern. And for the media, on a day of great symbolic import, the question was largely one of tone. Giddy or gracious? Restraint or rejoicing?
"I think we're going to be hearing a lot of superlatives today," CBS' Katie Couric said early on, "but I think it's almost impossible to be too hyperbolic about the significance of this moment in our nation's history, if you think about Barack Obama's journey."
'Ebullience, Happiness, Enthusiasm And Joy'
Dueling historians popped up across the dial: Douglas Brinkley on CBS, Michael Beschloss on NBC, Richard Norton Smith on ABC — and those are just the ones I actually saw. Former President George W. Bush's unpopularity and troubled record were acknowledged but gently pushed aside Tuesday. For President Obama, currently a far less divisive figure, fewer signals of goodwill were required. And the tone was pretty positive throughout.
"All of the buildings in Washington just seem a little brighter. I think Abraham Lincoln just sits a little bit straighter today," said ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who spent much of his youth in the nation's capital. "There's an ebullience, a happiness, an enthusiasm and a joy that is really extraordinary and I think transcends anything Ive seen on one of these inauguration days."
At times, adhering to what we call here the McEnroe rule, the channels paused in their chattering to allow natural sights and sounds to play out. There was the shot of former President Clinton aiding former President George H.W. Bush as the two walked in a hallway at the Capitol building. New Vice President Joseph Biden snapping a shot for young Malia Obama. The San Francisco Boys' and Girls' choirs singing "America the Beautiful" as the Cadillac limousine carried Mr. and Mrs. Obama from a nearby church to the White House to meet the Bushes. The two first families sharing a joke as they walked to the presidential helicopter that would ferry the Bushes from the Capitol after the address.
The day was not without some criticism for the new White House, however. The tough-minded Jeffrey Toobin of CNN, far from a conservative, called Obama's address a missed opportunity. "I am afraid this is likely to join the vast majorities of inaugural addresses which are quickly forgotten," Toobin said. And over on the Fox News Channel, conservatives Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes sounded a more fundamental dissenting chord, both dourly suggesting that the huge financial package meant to jumpstart the economy would come too late to help.
Fox News' Megyn Kelly started the day surprisingly sour on the air as she stood amid a cheering throng. She had been arguing for days with her fellow morning anchor, Bill Hemmer, as she later told viewers, that she felt it wasn't worth it to stand for hours in freezing temperatures for Obama's oath of office if you couldn't actually see it with your own eyes.
Was it worth being out there, she kept asking the crowd. Even in the cold? Getting a yes in return, she turned to anchor Bret Baier in the studio and said, "What can you do?"
A few hours later, after the ceremony, she changed her tune. "I am willing to admit on national television today, he was right, I was wrong," Kelly said. "To be at the midst of those millions with all the American flags waving — with the smooth and peaceful transition of power, was something I will never forget."
Touting New Technology
News organizations sought to use new technologies in their coverage. CNN, for example, integrated photographs of people in the crowd and satellite imagery to tell the stories of the events. NPR News tapped its listeners to chronicle the event via Twitter and other social media tools. And newspapers across the country prepared special editions to capitalize on the public's appetite to chronicle the day.
By afternoon, however, the news channels had switched to actual news, amid reports that two Democratic senators — Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd — had collapsed during a celebratory luncheon with leaders of Congress. Among the people brought on the air to shed light: CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, an Emory University brain surgeon who is expected to be nominated for surgeon general by the new president. It was an unexpected intersection of media and politics on a day when the two sides otherwise played well-rehearsed roles in a pageant intended to represent the democratic process.