thoughts on politics

September 15, 2008

Cotton Candy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matt @ 4:20 am
Tags: , , , ,

Thanks to Greg for bringing to my attention this masterful column that ran in the Wall Street Journal last week.

The writer is David Perel, editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer, the one paper that carried the John Edwards scandal story for a year with no corroboration or even acknowledgment from anywhere else in the media. The fact that the Enquirer did this alone, when it probably cost them money to keep pursuing it, bought them a lot of respect in my book. Don’t look for me to go subscribe yet, or even link to them on the side of this page, but they definitely showed toughness in following the story through, and sticking to it when it was hard.

The main question Perel asks is this: Are “personal” issues fair game for the media to cover in the election?

I realize I wrote a few entries back that Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy should be off-limits. Perel’s answer, according to the title of the column, is that “everything about politicians is fair game.” After reading his full column, I agree more with him.

In his column, Perel welcomes us to “the greatest tabloid presidential election in modern times.” Whether it’s the greatest of all I don’t know; I tend to think that all the elections these days are basically “charades,” as Ron Paul recently said. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? we see the campaign for the governorship of Mississippi carried out through the movie. The style of campaigning that is most visibly employed by the two candidates involves a flatbed truck driving around with a fiddler, a speaker, and a dancing midget on the back. It’s a sideshow. Though campaigns don’t use politically incorrect stunts like that anymore, the substance of the modern-day grassroots campaign is the same. Without going into specific examples here, I hope readers can at least partially allow me this claim.

So why is a politician’s private lifeor even their family’s internal dramafair game?

As I wrote in my last entry to reference the National Enquirer (boy, I never thought I’d be using that tag again), Dan Rather’s definition of “news” is a great starting point. “Anything that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know; that’s news.” Certainly Republicans would prefer to maintain the image of Sarah Palin as an irrationally religious conservative mom whose existence is in perfect accord with her proclaimed biblical values. A pregnant teenage daughter does that image significant damage. The full extent of what the National Enquirer is reporting is significantly worse (and, true to form, still untouched by the mainstream media, even if just to discredit it). I’ll leave it to Perel to point out all the hypocrisy that had to be performed left and right in response to the knocked-up revelation, and stick to the “what’s fair?” question in this entry.

Perel answers it himself:

In electing [our leaders] we grasp for any clues to their judgment and character, signals as to how they will react, and the verisimilitude of what they will tell the American people. An affair, regardless of political affiliation, is a breach of private trust; lying about it to the American public signals a dangerous willingness to deceive when caught in tough situations.

He’s pretty much right on that. The other big question Perel’s column raises, and leaves more open, is what the difference even is between the “mainstream” media and the “tabloid” media.

I say the biggest difference is simply the immediate reaction that every reader of this blog probably had to those two words. The highbrow mainstream media is where the real political discussion takes place, and where the truly important issues are examined, the worthwhile stories broken. Meanwhile, the tabloid media reports on Oprah’s weight, on Jessica Simpson’s divorce, on Britney Spears’ wackout. The tabloid media reports on things the mainstream media won’t.

But when I look at the “mainstream” outlets, I see nothing like what they are “supposed” to be.

Instead, I see hours of TV time spent guessing who Obama and McCain might pick as running mates, debate that was rendered totally pointless once they were actually announced (not that there was a point to it before the announcements). Inches, square feet even, of newspaper pages talking not about serious issues, but about how convention stages were set up, how events were calculated to appeal to the media, even how the media is reporting it. In what is ultimately a mockery of fairness and intelligent debate, media of all formats trot out voices representing the two opposing sides of “right” and “left” to have seven minute, mostly ad hominem, debates with no resolution ever. It is cotton candy from the fair, and the campaigns are only too happy to make it for the media, giving them plenty of press releases and access to the candidates as long as they don’t ask them anything too tough. The cotton candy is offered in several different flavorsblue, red, and purplethat all taste basically the same, and are all just as bad for you. And the infantile mainstream media devours it.

I still don’t regard the Enquirer as a trusty source, although the mere act of considering whether they are trustworthy assumes they have stories worth reading, which they generally don’t. I would like there to be a real difference between the two; lately there isn’t. Anyone who has read All the President’s Men has a sense of how much a media outlet really risks by doing long, investigative, and potentially explosive stories. If something like the Watergate break-in happened today, who would report it? I simply cannot imagine that any of the 24-hour TV networks would. I like to hope that some leading newspapers would pick it up, or a truly courageous independent website. Sadly, the John Edwards story suggests that it would be none of these, but instead most likely a tabloid paper.

What I mourn is the lack of any reputable media outlet to actually do its job. To not be wholly consumed by coverage of the election all the way from January 2007 to election day, to do fact-finding and investigating behind candidates’ claims instead of just mindlessly repeating the message each is trying to pass on to voters. There was a time, when I was so much younger and things were so much simpler, when I would have taken pride in saying I worked for a magazine like TIME, a paper like the New York Times, or a network like CNN. Now I’m waiting for the day when I meet someone who actually does, to tell them what I think of the job their company’s doing. “How long did it take you to learn how to stand in front of a building on camera and deliver a two-sentence story intro and earn your week’s pay?”

I don’t even really know how to conclude this; it’s pretty late, I’ve been writing a long time, and there’s not really any good conclusion to reach except that the mainstream media acts like the perfect definition of impotence, but I hope all my readers already knew that. I don’t know how I could do anything to actually change the way the media works, or anyone else: total impotence to fight this total impotence. I hope I at least encourage more people to step back and look at the whole mess of this. I find hope still in the internet, where free thought sometimes does happen, and fruitful exchange of ideas can occur.



  1. Matt,

    I was with you until you got to this part and had to take a cheap shot.

    “Certainly Republicans would prefer to maintain the image of Sarah Palin as an irrationally religious conservative mom”

    Also, you forgot to mention the alleged bias of the media, mainly that if John McCain had a sugar daddy like Tony Rezko, it would be all over the media, but good luck seeing any coverage on him…

    Comment by A friend — September 15, 2008 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  2. My friend, I hope you don’t think I’m actually pushing for Obama in this blog. She just seems to me to be irrationally religious, thinking that a big pipeline is God’s will on earth. Plenty of other places on this blog (although all before Sarah Palin came along) I have written about pro-Obama media bias. This entry’s more supposed to be a general indictment of the media.

    Comment by Matt — September 15, 2008 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

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