The Sporting Life
Much of our political coverage amounts to gossip and bad sports commentary. When the Obama campaign rebutted McCain's "celebrity" attack ad with one of their own, the AP reported that "McCain's 'celebrity' taunts are bugging Obama," taking their cues from GOP strategist Terry Holt, who asserted, "If the celebrity issue were not hurting them, they would have ignored it." The Politico pushed the same angle in "GOP's celeb-Obama message gains traction," adding a dose of the GOP's beloved gender attacks:
"This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama. Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
Ron Fournier's hit piece on Obama over the Biden VP choice really boiled down to, "Obama's weak, and scared of McCain," repeated over and over again for emphasis. Sometimes, the shallow coverage favors the Democrat, as with LA Times blog Top of the Ticket's "Barack Obama gets under John McCain's skin," but it's still rather silly stuff, especially when that's all there is to the story. Still, most of the recent "head game" stories seem to focus on Obama. If he's attacked and says nothing, the charge must be true or he's weak, and if he punches back, it must be true and he's "rattled," "upset" and so on. (Obama's probably most been most effective when gently mocking, as with his tire gauge retort.)
The head games fascinate the press, but reality just ain't that popular with them. Earlier this month, Bob Somerby chronicled how on Race to the White House, Rachel Maddow dared to mention that McCain's off-shore drilling proposals "would really have no impact on gas prices for, I don’t know, a generation," and then added, "That's brilliant politics. It just has no basis in reality." Her point was promptly brushed over by John Harwood and David Gregory, as well as Pat Buchanan, who remarked:
David, I’ve got to step in here because Rachel has really finally nailed one cold. Look, we’ve got $4 a gallon gasoline, $150 a barrel oil, and the Republicans are blaming Barack Obama for it, and they are succeeding with the issue and forcing him to change. That is a winner. Astonishingly good politics, a rarity for the Republicans lately.
The consequences of policies don't matter. What matters is how everything plays. (At least Maddow's getting her own show now.)
Digby's post linking Eric Boehlert is a good reminder of how the game works. The degree of Clinton-trashing Boehlert documents is striking, while New York magazine's "Obama Agrees to Roll-Call Vote for Clinton. Does That Make Him a Sissy?" plays into familiar dynamics. Somehow, I doubt that Hillary or Bill Clinton will deliver a true Mark Antony speech laced with nasty digs at Obama and a call for insurrection. I don't doubt for a second, though, that some reporters will eagerly look for such digs. (It beats writing about health care.) Karl Rove trashed Michelle Obama earlier, suggesting she was unpatriotic. He loves to attack the strength. Rove's remarked that he practices politics "as if people were watching television with the sound turned down," and he had to be nervous seeing the happy Obama family last night and how well that played. (It'll be interesting to hear what he says about Hillary Clinton's speech, but I'd be surprised if he didn't hit the divisiveness theme somehow.)
Rove's a partisan hack, of course, but at least some viewers know he worked for Bush (although his work for McCain should always be disclosed). I'm more concerned about supposedly objective reporters. I keep coming back to these examples because the contrasts are so stark – the Obama tax plan would give more money to the middle class than the McCain plan, which would also make the rich even richer, and McCain's plan for reducing the deficit amounts to wishing for a pony. By all means, let the McCain campaign have its say, let them defend their policies and critique Obama's. But reporting the actual policies would be nice. (The competing tax plans have gotten some air time on TV, but it's been pretty scant.)
Many of these issues aren't that hard to cover, either, yet it's far more common that we hear about Obama's celebrity, or that like Bush before him, John McCain is a swell guy. And did you know he was a POW, but reluctant to talk about it? He's a scrappy guy, a great American underdog story, poor little Admiral's son made good, losing the primaries in 2000, counted out this time around, but bouncing back… I suppose McCain hasn't gone full-blown into the "Aw, shucks" mode of Fred Thompson, and hasn't yet hit the full Bull Durham mode of saying he's gonna give the presidency 110%, he just hopes he can help the country, just wants to give it his best shot and the good Lord willing, things'll work out… But McCain has been running mainly on his personality, on his persona, and has gone something like 146 consecutive
starts speeches offering incoherent statements and unsound policies. He really has been the Teflon candidate.
McCain's popular with the press, but he also benefits because so many of our political journalists have an awfully odd attitude toward their beat. As Bob Somerby observed back in June:
In short, these people hate knowledge, complexity; they hate the infernal need to explore. Let’s put it another way: They hate politics. It’s weird, yet the contrast constantly strikes us. Sports reporters love to talk about sports. [Richard] Cohen hates talking about politics.
Most of all, they hate talking about policies and their consequences. That would be boring - and more work. The sporting life, the gossip game, is both easier and more fun. Honestly, I think there's a place for little side stories, learning more about a candidate as a person, biographical details, favorite movies and all that. However, especially when it comes to television coverage, often we receive little more than fluff, with not much substantive discussion. And if that weren't bad enough, there's generally favoritism to the fluff.
DDay's post "If A Nose Grows In The Forest..." explored these dynamics earlier this month. After noting that NBC's Chuck Todd "comes out and admits that he's a sportscaster," DDay observed:
Here's the thing, though - in the case of the Village, it's more like a home-team sportscaster. The guy who is paid the Raiders to cover the game, and he hates every other team and has no problem shaping the story to benefit his guys.
We've seen, many a time, how the press will vouch for Saint McCain. But while there are certainly plenty of godawful sportscasters, they tend to, y'know, report what actually happened. Even if we view the press as sportscasters, or even home-team sportscasters, our press corps lacks good play-by-play announcers, but is positively overflowing with really bad color commentators.
To strain this metaphor even further (and apologies to all non-sports fans), say the Green Bay Packers were playing the Chicago Bears and scored the first two touchdowns. If our political reporters were sportscasters, David Broder would insist that the Packers should let the Bears score, Sean Hannity would loudly proclaim that the Bears did score, and Cokie Roberts would misreport the score and then proceed to ignore the game.
I'll be interested to hear the speeches tonight, not so much the commentary. Still, I must remember there's always room for the coverage to grow far worse. Some day in the months ahead, we may see some enterprising news producer combine the worst of Bob Costas with the worst of Charlie Gibson, and bad debate questions will plunge to a new low: "Senator Obama, at the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals, bringing pride to America, while his mother Debbie cheered him on every step and stroke of the way. So why are you raising his capital gains taxes?"
Update: Fixed some typos.