"Let's face it, there are three things that the media are interested in: pictures, mistakes and attacks. That's the one sure way of getting coverage. You try to avoid as many mistakes as you can. You try to give them as many pictures as you can. And if you need coverage, you attack, and you will get coverage."
- Roger Ailes (1988)
As quoted in David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt's book, The FOX Effect, Ailes dropped that line during a post-mortem of the 1988 Presidential election conducted at Harvard University a few months after he had helped George Herbert Walker Bush defeat Michael Dukakis. That campaign was defined most memorably by the "picture" (and "mistake") of Dukakis, a veteran, looking ridiculous riding in the open hatch of a tank, and an "attack," a campaign ad about a black prisoner in Massachusetts, Willie Horton, who committed a brutal assault and rape while on a weekend furlough from jail, so Ailes was clearly onto something.
Indeed, that Ailes would make such a prescient observation is unsurprising. He cut his teeth 20 years before that rehabilitating the image of Richard Nixon, using tactics that are now familiar - the carefully scripted "town hall" meeting stocked with sympathetic voters, the use of wedge issues to mobilize the electorate and the staged photo used to convey an image and not a message. At the Presidential level, many in "the media," cowed by the aggressive tactics of Ailes and others on the right-wing, have largely shed their role as neutral arbiter of "facts" in favor of Greek chorus for the political food fight that passes for reasoned discussion in the Age of Obama. And who can blame them? The rise of the Internet and cable television has stripped away the traditional role that media at the national level - places like the newsroom at CBS and The New York Times, once held. Rupert Murdoch now owns The Wall Street Journal and an entire network that does nothing but ape Republican talking points while any reporting that even has a whiff of dreaded "liberal bias" is immediately pounced on to suggest the left secretly runs the media.
While smarter people than me have written about the media (a great primer is the essential "What Liberal Media?" by Eric Alterman), Ailes's observation about campaigns plays an increasing central role in the way we select our Presidents. Consider "mistakes." We are at the point where full sentences are no longer needed to frame them; say the following and people know immediately what you mean: "$10,000 bet," "Etch-A-Sketch," or "Oops." These boo boos feed the news cycle, often for days and, if mistakes are repeated, begin forming a broader narrative of the candidate. It is unsurprising that Mitt Romney comes off looking like some sort of latter day Thurston Howell III. Not only did Romney, a millionaire many times over, offer to make a $10,000 bet on national television, he mentioned in passing that his wife owns two Cadillacs and referred to more than $350,000 in speaking fees he received as not a lot of money. That he hired a lobbyist to gain a local zoning variance so he could install an elevator for the cars in his California's mansion seemed apt in the context of these other disclosures. Rick Perry's inability to remember the three federal agencies he would shutter if he became President torpedoed his campaign and even though no one thought Herman Cain would ever be elected, his glib response to a question about Uzbekistan said all that needed to be said about his lack of readiness for the national stage.
Of course, the best way to fight off mistakes is to attack. Indeed, while the media will gladly feed at the trough of an offhand remark like "I like to fire people" or a modest slight about the source of cookies at a campaign rally for a day or two, what they really want is a manufactured dust up to drive the news. Such was the case with Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney could not relate to working women because she (Ann Romney) had not "worked a day in her life." The blowback was immediate, with critics (including the President) rising to the defense of stay-at-home mothers. Of course, candidates can "overreach" when they feign outrage, as Ann Romney did, by "defending" her "choice" to raise 5 kids (a luxury afforded her by her husband's great wealth) while telling a group of fundraisers that she basically manipulated the whole incident to garner sympathy (referring to it as a great "birthday present.") Her husband got caught in the undertow as well when it turned out he had called for women with children as young as 2 to be forced to work if they wanted public assistance.
And what was learned from this one incident? Nothing. And what political gain (or loss) was achieved? None. Polling done after wall-to-wall coverage of this non-story indicated that it changed no minds about who people would vote for. In the balance, no greater discussion of the two candidates' positions was revealed, no critical examination of their policy views was deduced and of course, at least in Romney's case, no follow-up reporting/commenting was done by the news media (Romney rarely does press availabilities and generally avoids the media except when his poll numbers are lagging). But what it did accomplish was sucking up hours upon hours of cable news time, page views on myriad political websites and fake outrage. Kudos.
Attacks matter both because they obscure the weaknesses of a candidate and define their opponents. Governor Romney's tactic of imputing on President Obama negative outcomes that Romney has himself been tarred with is a new spin on the Rovian idea of turning a candidate's strength into a weakness. Thus, Romney claims Obama's presidency has been bad for women because of purported job losses they have suffered while he has been President glides over the fact that public sector job losses, in sectors like teaching where women predominate, are largely due to the policies of state level officials, and a refusal by Republicans at the national level to extend aid to states that would help avoid these layoffs. It also obscures his poor jobs record as Governor of Massachusetts (47th out of 50) and the litany of layoffs and firings in companies he acquired as head of Bain Capital.
By throwing out the attack, Romney also deflects attention away from policies he has taken that poll poorly among many women. For example, Romney came out in support of a personhood amendment in Mississippi that would have declared an embryo a "person" and thus making all abortion, and many forms of birth control, illegal, and the Blount-Rubio Amendment in the Senate that would have allowed employers to refuse to offer contraceptive coverage in their medical plans on vaguely worded "morals" grounds. But in the instant gratification, reductionist media of today, all that is heard is some spin about women making up 93% of job losses under Obama. For the media, so long as there is a good "he said/he said" narrative to report, the underlying facts are not germane. Neither the manner of the attack nor the veracity of it is important, so long as someone is calling someone else a no good so and so, the blood suckers happily tap away on their laptops and iPhones, writing, blogging and tweeting about the latest contrempts on the campaign trail.
Days are now spent talking about the U.S. Secret Service's prostitution scandal, with Republicans loudly inveighing against their conduct, but where were those Republicans when one of their own, David Vitter, turned up in the "little black book" of a D.C. madam? Instead of raising that legitimate question of hypocrisy, journalists look for the slant on how it affects President Obama, who had nothing to do with it. Same thing with the GSA. A waste of taxpayer money? Of course. Imputed to Obama, huh? In the meantime, legitimate stories about actual governance, as when members of Governor Romney's staff bought their hard drives at the end of his term in office, go unreported. Might that action suggest a certain desire for secrecy we, as voters should be conceded about? Sure, but the press is too busy chasing its own tail about the horse race and polling to focus on substantive issues. Why bother looking at how a person actually governs when ancillary stories that have nothing to do with the person are far sexier?
Think none of this matters? Consider the Republicans' favorite boogeyman, the national debt. If you just listened to people like Paul Ryan, you would think this debt appeared out of nowhere when Barack Obama took office; however, rarely reported is Ryan's complicity in the creation of this debt through his votes for massive tax cuts (2001 and 2003), unfunded wars in Iraq & Afghanistan and the Medicare Part D drug benefit, all of which occurred under a Republican President who mocked a fiscally responsible position during the 2000 election to put the Social Security surplus in a "lockbox."
You remember the lockbox, right? That was either the nadir or high point of the media's intellectual laziness (depending on your perspective). It was derided in the media, on Saturday Night Live and of course, by the Bush campaign. Simply put, Al Gore proposed taking the trillions in Social Security surplus that had accumulated and making that money off limits to the rest of the federal government, which, as a matter of course, had borrowed against that surplus for decades to make budget numbers look less bad than they were. Gore's idea grew out of the budget surplus he and President Clinton helped create and the fiscally responsible idea that government should prepare for the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. In other words, a "little c" conservative position to take to help ensure the country's future financial stability.
We all know what happened next. The media focused on important issues like Gore's sighing during debates, who voters would prefer to have a beer with and blithely looked away when shenanigans during the Florida recount occurred. For their interest in the sizzle over the steak, we got the most fiscally irresponsible president in our nation's history. Instead of reserving the surplus that had assiduously accumulated, Bush spent it, all of it, and then some, on his tax cuts, wars and drug benefits, raiding the Social Security trust fund to help do it, and generated an enormous structural budget deficit that exploded in the financial meltdown in 2008. Now, 12 years after that 2000 election, our fiscal house is in complete disorder and that army of soon-to-be seniors looms that much closer on the horizon. Had the media focused on the risks of trillions of dollars in tax cuts in 2000 instead of whether Gore invented the Internet (something he actually never claimed to have done), well, who knows. Of course, in the contemporaneous reporting on our fiscal problems these days, 2000 is down the memory hole, unfunded wars didn't happen and the Medicare D benefit might as well have happened under LBJ. In the meantime, the media politely allows Republicans to whitewash their own history and push an agenda that would cover up their fiscal recklessness by destroying the social safety net.
One thing W's team perfected was the manipulation of "reality" and how journalists who depended on fact and examination of policy to come to truth were missing the point - that Rove and his ilk could bend reality because there was no arbiter of what was and was not truth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality-based_community). Once you have destroyed the Moynihan rule of "you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts" there is no end to the lying you can do in service of your ultimate goals because the truth no longer matters. This happens even when candidates and consultants are shown saying diametrically opposed things (Jon Stewart has owned this particular form of illustrating hypocrisy) or attempting to backtrack off of things previously said in the service of present day expediency (Etch-A-Sketch anyone?).
This shit matters, people. In fact, it matters more today than it has in recent memory because the precipice we find ourselves on is that precarious. As has been documented elsewhere, this Republican Congress is as conservative as has ever been seen and seems willing to burn down the village to save it - that is, to completely eviscerate the social safety net that tens of millions of elderly, young, poor, disabled and homeless rely on for a modicum of decency and leave the rest of us at the mercy of a privatized, for-profit world in which there are few regulations, little oversight and no accountability.
Relying on the "mainstream" media to ensure coverage of the Presidential campaign that consists of more than pictures, mistakes and attacks is unlikely. Reporters at the national level are well paid, largely unaffected when social policy changes and desirous of the cache that comes from being inside the heady bubble of Presidential politics. Ultimately, that's the dirty little secret. The media, at least most of it, is not invested in getting to some greater truth, some core of objectivity that will actually enlighten instead of entertain for fear they might get snubbed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner or not have their calls returned by the Romney campaign's political flacks. The relationship between these campaigns and the reporters who cover them is both symbiotic and incestuous. That it is also destructive to the political discourse in our country goes without saying, but I kind of think Roger Ailes is cool with that.