Culture Wars, Politics of Destruction and the Media

As I have mentioned, Obama is finally striking back against the McCain team’s low blows. I understand why the Democrats would finally want to start firing back at the Republican Lee Atwater, Karl Rove tactics of culture wars and personal destruction. Nevertheless, I am not fully comfortable with Obama taking this path, even if bringing up the Keating Five isn’t too much of a stretch. And now it looks like McCain’s connections to Iran Contra are also being dug up out of the past.

A few days ago, I blamed the press for giving credence to Palin’s statements about Obama “palling around with terrorists” by literally making it a headline. In an excellent piece on the subject in today’s Washington Post, Eugene Robinson echoed my concerns and wrote,

We also know that no matter how skeptical we are when we write about bogus allegations, writing about them at all gives them wider circulation. So when Palin questions Obama’s love of country because Obama knows somebody who did something unpatriotic when Obama was 8, our free-market ethos makes us rush to cover her every ridiculous word. We also find ways to convey that this is pure mudslinging and nothing but a cynical campaign tactic, but that doesn’t matter to the McCain campaign. What matters is that we’re writing and talking about this extraneous stuff — and not about the issues that polls say voters really care about.

If we in the media really believe what we say about serving the public interest, we have a duty to avoid being turned into instruments of mass distraction. Of course we should cover what the candidates say, putting their words in context and pointing out when the candidates are exaggerating or lying. But we should also think hard about how much prominence we give to smears and counter-smears.

It’s interesting because if you are like me (and by that I mean obsessively reading all of the major newspapers on a daily basis to get election coverage), you know that the serious press and journalists have pretty unanimously condemned John McCain’s change in strategy, most of his cheap shots, and have all — from the right, left and center — found Sarah Palin to be uniquely unqualified. Nevertheless when I read the papers this morning, there is still more coverage given to Obama links to Bill Ayers than to McCain and the Keating Five. Even if much of the stories criticize McCain’s misuse of the facts or dispel the Ayers connection, the press is still give airtime to the ridiculous claims.

Take the Sarah Palin example that I just mentioned. Yes, the press has agreed that she is not ready for the vice presidency, let alone the presidency, and a week ago was disgusted about her lack of accessibility. She came off as a total light weight, barely capable of completing a sentence, and afraid of the press. Yet, today, she is allowed to play ultra-tough, gloves off, high heals on, hockey mom pit bull decrying Barack Obama’s record. Meanwhile, she continues in her refusal to hold a press conference or serious interview.

After Palin’s debate, where was any serious analysis about, not her performance, but the content of her answers? As Richard Cohen writes, the press gave her a pass.

In her debate against Joe Biden last week, she mischaracterized Barack Obama’s tax plan and his offer to meet with foreign adversaries of the United States. She found whole new powers for the vice president by misreading the Constitution, if she ever read it at all. She called one moment for the federal government to virtually disappear and a moment later lamented the lack of its oversight of the financial markets. She asserted that she “may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear” because, apparently, the rules don’t apply to her on account of her being a hockey mom. Fer sure.

Not enough? Okay. Palin also said that she “and others in the legislature” had called for the state of Alaska to divest itself of investments in companies that do business with Sudan. But, as the indefatigable truth-hunter at The Post found out, the divestiture effort was not led by Palin. In fact, her administration opposed the initiative, and Palin herself only came around to it after the bill had died.

In spite of it all, much of the media saw a credible performance. I could quote the hosannas of some of my colleagues, but I spare them the infamy that will surely follow them to their graves. (The debate’s moderator, Gwen Ifill, used the occasion to catch up on some sleep.) Many of my colleagues judged Palin simply as a performer and inferred that her performance would go over well in homes with aboveground swimming pools.

A perfect example is the Wall Street Journal, whose (conservative) editorial page has been absolutely fixated on a strict (Scalian) reading of the Constitution. Did it wonder what in the world Palin meant by the authority she found in the Constitution to increase the role of “the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate”? What? Oh, never mind. The Journal chivalrously ignored the matter. Palin is excused from knowing the limits of the office she seeks.

In effect, columnists, bloggers, talk-show hosts and digital lamplighters have adopted the ethic of the political consultant: what works, works. It did not matter what Palin said. It only mattered how she said it — all those doggones, references to her working-class status (net worth in excess of $2 million), promiscuous use of the word “maverick,” repeated mentions of “greed and corruption on Wall Street” (Who? Be specific. Give examples. Didn’t anyone here go to school?) and, of course, that manic good cheer. Palin knows that the standard is not right or wrong, truth or lie, but the graph that ran under both debaters on CNN, measuring approval, disapproval or, maybe, the blood sugar levels of certain people in their focus group. Things have changed. Might used to make right. Now a wink does.

. . .  But what about Palin? Can you imagine the reaction of the press corps if Clinton had given the audience a “hiya, sailor” wink? Can you imagine the feverish blogging across the political spectrum if Clinton had claimed credit for stopping a bridge that, in fact, had set her heart aflutter? What if she had shown that she didn’t know squat about the Constitution, if she could not tell Katie Couric what newspapers or magazines she read or if she had claimed an intimacy with foreign affairs based on sighting Russia through binoculars?

Ah, but the scorn, approbation and ridicule that would have descended on Clinton — I can just imagine the Journal editorial — have been withheld from Palin. Much of the mainstream media, grading on a curve suitable for a parrot — “greed and corruption, greed and corruption, greed and corruption” — gave her a passing grade or better. I agree with Palin. It’s the mainstream media that flunked.

At least Maureen Dowd is around to remind us of what Palin really says and that her grammar signals the second coming of George W. Bush anti-intellectualism,

When she was asked by Couric if she’d ever negotiated with the Russians, the governor replied that when Putin “rears his head” he is headed for Alaska. Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.”

Tonight we have the second presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain. My guess is we’ll learn a lot about the performance and little about the substance. People will be watching like it was Zaire ’74, the Rumble in the Jungle where Ali said that he and Foreman were going to “get it on because we don’t get along”.

As a final word on the rebirth of the culture wars, there was a nice piece today in the Washington Post by Anne Applebaum in defense of Washingtonians and dispelling Palin’s logical fallacy that we are in need of people from outside of Washington to solve the country’s problems. The government, by definition, is made up of Washington outsiders like Palin herself:

Among these “outsiders” I would include our current president, who was raised in Midland, Tex.; our vice president, who was raised in Casper, Wyo.; our most recent former president, who was born in Hope, Ark.; even our most senior former president, who comes from Plains, Ga. I would also include the large numbers of ex-Texans — Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales — who have towered over national politics for the past eight years, as well as such notable figures as Michael “heck of a job” Brown, the Oklahoma native who presided over the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Above all, I would include Congress, which by definition contains hundreds of “outsiders,” many from places just like Wasilla. I am thinking here of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska (a resident of Girdwood), now on trial on charges of corruption, and Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (born in Laredo), who resigned in disgrace. For the sake of bipartisanship, I’ll mention Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson (originally of Lake Providence), recently indicted on charges of corruption. But if more small-town Republican names come to mind, that’s because small-town Republicans have figured among the most powerful and most prominent Washington politicians for much of the past decade.

The result: Washington, however stuffy it may once have been, is no longer in need of “a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street.” Washington is in need of expertise, management experience, long-term thinking and more political courage — from wherever in the country it happens to come. More to the point, Washington needs people who think like national politicians and not like spokesmen for the local business executives who fill their reelection coffers and the local party hacks who plan their campaigns. Let’s be frank: The “bailout” bill was passed last week not because members of Congress decided it would work but because it was stuffed with the pork, perks and tax breaks without which no piece of legislation, however important to the nation as a whole, can now pass. Maybe it’s unfair to call that “small-town” thinking, but it sure is small-minded. And small-mindedness, not snobbery, is the dominant mind-set of 21st-century Washington.

Wait, that’s another Washington Post column that I am quoting. So maybe journalism is all that bad. It’s not all Gotcha.

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Filed under Essays, Obama 08

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