Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pay No Attention to the Media Behind the Curtain

"We may not like it," wrote The New York Times' David Brooks, rising to the defense of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos after last Wednesday's Democratic debate, "but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall." Brooks' fellow members of the media elite's innermost circle could not be blamed, he wanted you to know, for they were merely doing their jobs, forcing the candidates to answer the questions they'll have no choice but to confront in the general election.

But don't let him fool you -- Brooks likes it just fine. He and his compatriots would find nothing more boring than a campaign consumed by discussions of individual mandates and redeployment plans, some kind of dreadfully tedious policy wonk-fest where issues of "culture" take only a supporting role. How then would he mine the red state-blue state pop sociology that took him from a mildly interesting writer for a conservative magazine to a prince of "serious" mass media, with gigs at The New York Times, PBS, and NPR? Where would he find the opportunities to explicate the contrast between riding mowers and Wal-Mart (virtuous and authentic) and lattes and Whole Foods (elitist and phony)?

Brooks' justification of the ABC personalities' shark-jumping performance was emblematic of the press' self-conception, the exaltation of the passive voice. "Issues" like flag pins "will be important." And how will this happen? From whence will this importance come? Will the heavens open, trumpets blare, and God himself command in a booming voice that reporters shall write about flag pins, no matter what their better natures and their obligations to the public might dictate?

Of course not. Reporters will choose to write about flag pins. They will choose to write about whether some catastrophic, heretofore hidden character flaw has been revealed by a comment a candidate made, or by a comment somebody who knows the candidate made. They are not merely conduits for the campaign's discourse, they create the campaign's discourse, as much as the candidates themselves.

Ah, but didn't Hillary Clinton criticize Barack Obama over his "bitter" comments? Doesn't that justify a week of relentless, repetitive discussion? Yes, she did (as he has criticized her before on matters equally trivial). But on that day, she probably held half a dozen campaign events and talked about a hundred different things. Had reporters wanted, they could have written stories about what she said about health care, the economy, Iraq, or just about anything else. They chose instead to write about this. The time is long past for them to stop pretending they have nothing to do with how trivial a campaign becomes.

But don't hold your breath. Political reporters will cling to their long-held conceit that they are but observers whose own choices have no impact on the campaign's progression. They are a clean, empty pipe through which the impressions and beliefs of the public flow unimpeded. But the act of observing the campaign doesn't just alter the campaign, it is the campaign. If reporters decide something is an "issue," than an issue it will be. If they decide to ignore something, it will disappear from the news, and eventually from voters' minds.

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