The "Tsunami" of SOTU Coverage

Thursday, January 30, 2014
Probably the only vantage point that wasn't shown on a wide variety of viewing options--from the floor of the US House of Representatives. (photo courtesy of

Due to guidance provided within Article II and the Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution (thanks to The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd for bringing that last item to light during the trivia question segment of Wednesday's show), political junkies like me love the latter part of January (or as late as mid-February as was the case in 2013) because that means that the annual President's State of the Union Address is right around the corner.  In a tradition that dates back to George Washington's address to Congress in 1790, the head of the executive branch provides the legislative branch with an update on the conditions within the nation for the upcoming year.  While switched to a written communication by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the in-person version was resurrected by Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and he expanded it to include a blueprint for the administration's legislative agenda.  In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped brand this speech as the "State of the Union" and establish a permanent tradition for presidential presentations on Capitol Hill (1946 was the last year that a president--Harry Truman--did not appear in-person).

President Ronald Reagan speaks at Joint Session of Congress on his program for economic recovery--not a State of the Union address--on February 18, 1981. (photo courtesy of the Reagan Library)

Another bit of trivia is related to what we call a president's address in the first year of his term in office.  Prior to 1981, the out-going president gave this update prior to the swearing-in of their successor.  While Jimmy Carter did submit the constitutionally mandated update, he did so in writing and declined the public venue in the wake of a bitter election defeat (his 30,000+ word document was the longest ever presented).  On February 18, 1981 Ronald Reagan gave a speech that was not billed as a "State of the Union" but with another title (an "Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery").  All presidents following him have honored this change and now use that initial joint session opportunity to outline their specific goals for their incoming administrations.

Addresses by Presidents Coolidge, Truman and Clinton in 1923, 1947 and 1997, respectively, helped usher in new communications avenues for this annual event. (portraits courtesy of

The State of the Union Address' live audience was once limited solely to members of the Congress and their guests; however, the general public was initially included via radio in 1923 during Calvin Coolidge's only in-person appearance.  Truman's 1947 speech was the first to be televised on broadcast television and Bill Clinton's 1997 address achieved a similar media transformative milestone by having the video streamed live on the World Wide Web.  I would like to focus on these last two methods in reviewing Tuesday night's speech by Barack Obama.

Norah O'Donnell, Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley hosted CBS News' coverage of the 2014 State of the Union Address.

As a creature of habit, I hunkered down within the sightline of the flatscreen television in our master bedroom that night so I could watch the address with minimum interruptions from my wife or son.  Further bolstering my "troglodyte cred", I tuned in to the CBS News broadcast right at the top of the 9 o'clock hour to see Scott Pelley, Bob Schieffer and Norah O'Donnell anchoring the network's coverage of the president's speech and the three Republican rebuttals (given by Congresswomen Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul) scheduled afterwards.  My local affiliate, WHIO-TV, detracted from the experience due to their constant "crawl" across the bottom of the screen for announcing weather-related closures and delays.  The visuals above that scrolling and the rich audio made viewing bearable and I settled in to watch the pageantry surrounding this annual event.  The introductions of the Cabinet occurred about three minutes into the program and it wasn't until nearly quarter past the hour when President Obama was allowed to start speaking.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was the White House's "designated survivor" for last night's State of the Union Address. (photo courtesy of the US Energy Department)

Another trivia case of a government decapitation terrorist incident (think of Tom Clancy's 1994 novel Debt of Honor), an enemy sneak attack, or an unanticipated natural disaster (like the 2011 earthquake that struck Washington, DC in 2011), one Cabinet member is selected prior to the speech to be the "designated survivor".  That person is kept in a physically distant, secure and non-disclosed location and if a mass calamity did happen, they would become the new president based upon the line of succession outlined in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 to ensure continuity of government. Congress started their own program in 2005 to hold back one representative and one senator to assume the roles of Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate in the aftermath of such a catastrophe.  Last night's selectee was Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz, a recent replacement for Dr. Steven Chu who was, coincidentally, last year's "survivor".  With the recent turnover of Cabinet members, I was at a loss for matching names to faces on the television and had to look up this item online.  I have not been able to find out the names of the two congressional members although it was widely known that three sitting Supreme Court associate justices (Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas) would not be attending, informally assuring continuity within the judicial branch.

About about 40 minutes into the broadcast, I suddenly got an idea that demanded my immediate action.  In addition to the TV set, I had my laptop and smartphone with me in the bedroom and I also realized that I had access to a Roku digital media player and a wide variety of news channels available on those four devices.  Using the phone's camera, I started to snap some photos of my 20 viewing options (and I apologize in advance for the poor quality):





Fox (WRGT)




Fox News Channel

Fox Business Channel



Fox - Cincinnati (WXIX)

CBS - Cincinnati (WKRC)


The Wall Street Journal

News Channel 8 DC

The Huffington Post

Al Jazeera America

BBC World News

Online (video captures):

The Washington Post

The New York Times

The White House

Domestic and international...commercial and and conservative...innovative and mainstream...and even a source from the speaker's "home court".  No matter what the viewer's taste or ideological point-of-view, there was an outlet to let them sample the president's message through whatever filter or device the wanted.  I probably could've found a few more if I used our primary television's digital tuner (C-SPAN being the obvious omission and that was because Time Warner Cable took their three channels off of its basic analog service last year).

It took a contingent of four Republican lawmakers to rebut President Obama's State of the Union Address.

Due to my completing all of the activities related to capturing the above images, I didn't get the opportunity to watch any of the responses to President Obama's speech by a contingent of Republican lawmakers.  I am assuming that, for the sake of equal time, all of the SOTU sources I highlighted above showed the three major ones (I don't believe that any English language outlets would run the translation of the official Republican response). This high number was believed to be a mixture of deliberate marketing (McMorris Rodgers to women, Ros-Lehtinen to women and Hispanics, Lee to the party's Tea Party faction) and self-aggrandizement (Paul's was personally sanctioned and produced).  In addition to these televised segments, many GOP lawmakers used Vine, a Twitter-owned micro video application, to provide their own rebuttals to the president's remarks.

President Johnson watches election coverage by the three broadcast networks in November 1964. (photo by Cecil Staughton and courtesy of the LBJ Library)

I am old enough to remember when viewers only having three over-the-air television channels to choose from and for only a set amount of hours each day (public television did not start in my area of the country until 1966).   I've lived in overseas locations where I had only one English language station available to somehow meet my news and entertainment needs.  What I displayed above (and the many, many more I didn't have access to or was aware of at the time) is a glowing testament to the advancement of technology in this second decade of the 21st century.  According to initial tabulations, the television audience for the 2014 State of the Union Address was about 33.3 million viewers, a 12 percent decrease from the previous year.  While such a precipitous drop attracted a lot of attention, popular consensus has already attributed that decrease to the wide adoption of non-Nielsen monitored viewing methods and devices.  It would certainly be a fair statement to say that people may have opted out of watching Tuesday night's speech due to the "messenger" (and his "message"); however, no one can complain that there weren't enough "vehicles" to deliver him/it to them.

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