Yet Another Election-Year Media Muddle

The Inlander | September 10, 2008
When Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech in Denver last month, one of his best lines was to warn people to ignore all those who seek to make "a big election about small things." It seemed to be a jab at Karl Rove and his disciples, who have perfected the art of getting elected, even as they continue to have no idea how to govern. But I think it really applies best to our media -- Rove simply understands that when given a choice, the big media will make an election about small things every time.

That's why, when John McCain's Rove-trained campaign team launched an ad comparing Barack Obama to Britney Spears, they could count on the networks, with Pavlovian certainty, to eat it up. With fresh meat waved under their noses, the media was powerless to do anything other than replay that Britney/Paris TV spot every five minutes or so for two weeks. Obama's momentum was stopped cold.

In an election that should be about how to avoid the next Great Depression or the next nationalistic free-for-all around the world, we're talking about Paris Hilton and flag pins. Seriously, at a debate last summer, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos grilled Obama for a huge block of time on why he didn't always wear a flag pin on his lapel. Never mind that McCain hasn't always worn one either -- in fact, McCain didn't even wear one during his acceptance speech in St. Paul. Now Gibson has scored the first interview with Sarah Palin. Watch to see what gets more time: the government's seemingly endless supply of money for Wall Street bailouts or the fact that Palin has a sweet tooth for moose.

We've seen this happen before. In 2000, the media latched onto the fact that some poll decided America would rather have a beer with George W. Bush than Al Gore. Voila! The media found their narrative. Then in 2004, John Kerry couldn't shake the notion that he was a flip-flopper (essentially true, although all politicians, including Bush and McCain, change positions over time) and that he really wasn't a brave soldier after all (even though every witness not affiliated with the GOP and every government document stated otherwise). Two narrow elections were decided on small things, thanks to the media cleverly played by the Bush machine.

Now we're bankrupt and at war, and we're seeing it all over again. Will the media call the GOP out to explain what just happened to our country, or ... did I mention that Sarah Palin is a hockey mom?

Here's a story: the implosion of the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan's big tent is smaller than ever today. As a result, the GOP's rising stars -- the pro-choice Arnold Schwarzenegger, the pro-Constitution Ron Paul -- have no future in the party.

The enduring story of this race will be McCain's big choice. Instead of charting a path toward future growth for his party -- a path more in keeping with his take on Republican values, perhaps by choosing a guy like Tom Ridge -- he retrenched the party into a smaller, whiter, less open-minded and more extreme slice of the GOP pie.

What happened to McMaverick? A hallmark of McCain's career had been to call it like he saw it -- he was that rare politician who told the truth rather than spout the party's talking points. And a lot of Americans from all parties loved him for it. But now he’s running a campaign so freighted with hypocrisy, it's no wonder he won't let Palin out to meet the press. Here are just a few examples:

• McCain is running against earmarks and the lobbyists who seek them, yet his campaign is run by some of the most notorious lobbyists in D.C.

• McCain is also running against George W. Bush and, oddly, the GOP, yet he hasn't identified any significant policy differences he has with the president or his party.

• Despite having a life story that hinges on the inhumanity of torture, McCain -- with Bush -- has supported allowing the United States to break international law and condone and conduct torture.

• On his TV ads, you see the hopeful image of windmills generating clean power from the American countryside. It's a pretty picture, except that every time he has had a chance to make it a reality, McCain has voted against energy independence.

• As for the women's vote, both McCain and Palin have congratulated and generally sucked up to Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Rove and his shock troops were privately depressed they couldn't make the election all about Hillary. Had she won the nomination, the GOP would have made her the villain to end all villains. But since she didn't win, now they love her. These guys are shameless.

• And when he was running against Bush in 2000, McCain warned America about the "corrupting influences" of the "agents of intolerance" on the far right, and said "those who practice [those influences] in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country. Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics..." In 2008, he picked their poster girl as his running mate.

Perhaps America is in store for a cacophony of media, coming at us from a million perspectives via all kinds of media, new and old. It's no recipe for national unity, but when you can't trust the media to do its job, it might be the only way forward. For every 30 seconds on questions about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there are hours on whether Obama is a closet Muslim or whether Palin wants Alaska to secede from the union. For the third time this decade, the media seems bent on muddling a presidential election rather than clarifying it.

If you take these two men at face value -- hard to do in McCain's case -- change is coming to Washington. Here's hoping that some of that change rubs off on our media.

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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