Posted for this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is an article by This Town author Mark Leibovich criticizing politicians for tarring negative questions posed to them as “gotcha” pieces as a way to minimize their relevance. Leibovich cherry picks some examples to bolster his point –John McCain’s dismissive attitude toward the media after Sarah Palin could not identify any newspapers or magazines that informed her thinking, George W. Bush failing to identify several world leaders during the 2000 campaign, and Scott Walker being asked if he would attend a wedding of two gay people.
To this, Mike Allen, the daily chronicler of all things Washington through his “Teen Beat on the Potomac” reader Playbook huffed: “We feel the same way about whining about ‘process stories.’ Getting elected is a process. Governing is a process. Welcome to the NFL.” In other words, put your big boy (and girl) pants on and quit complaining because we in the media can/will ask whatever we want, no matter how insipid or trivial, ignore stories we do not think relevant, highlight stories we think are important (even if the American people do not care about them) because we are infallible and cannot be questioned.
The Bush example is particularly instructive. It is widely agreed that the press took it easy on Bush in 2000 while picking apart Al Gore on everything from his taste in clothing to his non-verbal gestures (sighing/shaking his head) during the two candidates’ debates. Meanwhile, Bush largely got a pass on questions about his tax cut plan (which Gore accurately predicted would liquidate the budget surplus he and President Clinton had created), his so-called “compassionate conservatism” and his lack of any foreign policy experience (you know, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney were going to babysit him – adults were in charge, no worries, people!) because he seemed like a regular guy you could have a beer with. Gore, laden with policy proposals and a less than charismatic style, was portrayed as a classic goodie two-shoes, “stiff” and a “beta” male. Whose fault was that?
On the other hand, Leibovich doth protest too much about a candidate’s ability to talk past the media in today’s social media environment. While Mitt Romney was one of the most inaccessible Presidential candidates in recent memory, no amount of YouTube channels or tweets (which were allegedly vetted by more than 20 people) could save him when the dreaded “47 percent” video was released. Similarly, the New York Times has driven weeks of coverage of the Clinton Foundation by giving a partisan author the paper’s imprimatur even though the book’s claims have been widely debunked.
The rise of candidate fact checkers can just as easily be seen as a response to the media’s abdication of its role as neutral arbiter. Too much of what passes for journalism these days is simply allowing both sides to present their arguments without refereeing what is true or false. If you do not believe me, just ask John Kerry how many reporters came to his defense when he was “swift boated” during the 2004 Presidential election. Not only was the media more than willing to repeat bogus claims against Kerry, he was criticized for (wait for it), not pushing back harder against those falsehoods.
This is not to say that questions about charitable donations or a candidate’s position on same-sex marriage are not relevant, it is that they should be reported in context. Not every mole hill is a mountain and using up media oxygen on whether Hillary tipped at Chipotle or Rand Paul got Ray-Ban’s permission to sell their sunglasses on his campaign website are just the type of ephemera that make people roll their eyes at journalists. Whether Scott Walker would attend the marriage of two homosexuals matters far less than whether he thinks civil rights protections should be extended to the LGBTQ community or how his actions against unions in Wisconsin would impact labor rights were he elected President. I am far more interested in knowing what Hillary Clinton will do to improve education and employment opportunities than if she threw her spare change into a tip jar.
So, if Mark Leibovich and Mike Allen want politicians to, for lack of a better term, grow a pair, perhaps they should too.
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