"We may not like it," wrote The New York Times' David Brooks, rising to the defense of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos after last Wednesday's Democratic debate, "but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall." Brooks' fellow members of the media elite's innermost circle could not be blamed, he wanted you to know, for they were merely doing their jobs, forcing the candidates to answer the questions they'll have no choice but to confront in the general election.
But don't let him fool you -- Brooks likes it just fine. He and his compatriots would find nothing more boring than a campaign consumed by discussions of individual mandates and redeployment plans, some kind of dreadfully tedious policy wonk-fest where issues of "culture" take only a supporting role. How then would he mine the red state-blue state pop sociology that took him from a mildly interesting writer for a conservative magazine to a prince of "serious" mass media, with gigs at The New York Times, PBS, and NPR? Where would he find the opportunities to explicate the contrast between riding mowers and Wal-Mart (virtuous and authentic) and lattes and Whole Foods (elitist and phony)?
Brooks' justification of the ABC personalities' shark-jumping performance was emblematic of the press' self-conception, the exaltation of the passive voice. "Issues" like flag pins "will be important." And how will this happen? From whence will this importance come? Will the heavens open, trumpets blare, and God himself command in a booming voice that reporters shall write about flag pins, no matter what their better natures and their obligations to the public might dictate?
Of course not. Reporters will choose to write about flag pins. They will choose to write about whether some catastrophic, heretofore hidden character flaw has been revealed by a comment a candidate made, or by a comment somebody who knows the candidate made. They are not merely conduits for the campaign's discourse, they create the campaign's discourse, as much as the candidates themselves.
Ah, but didn't Hillary Clinton criticize Barack Obama over his "bitter" comments? Doesn't that justify a week of relentless, repetitive discussion? Yes, she did (as he has criticized her before on matters equally trivial). But on that day, she probably held half a dozen campaign events and talked about a hundred different things. Had reporters wanted, they could have written stories about what she said about health care, the economy, Iraq, or just about anything else. They chose instead to write about this. The time is long past for them to stop pretending they have nothing to do with how trivial a campaign becomes.
But don't hold your breath. Political reporters will cling to their long-held conceit that they are but observers whose own choices have no impact on the campaign's progression. They are a clean, empty pipe through which the impressions and beliefs of the public flow unimpeded. But the act of observing the campaign doesn't just alter the campaign, it is the campaign. If reporters decide something is an "issue," than an issue it will be. If they decide to ignore something, it will disappear from the news, and eventually from voters' minds.
Not that journalists would admit it. Stephanopoulos himself, when interviewed by Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo, offered the standard defense that these issues are just out there:
When I asked him whether asking about Obama's derelict approach to his flag lapel pin risked making it look like right-wing frames were dictating the line of questioning, Stephanopoulos said:
"Sure, there's a risk." But he added: "If you look at the fall campaign, there are some clear signals from Senator Obama's opponents that all of these issues are going to be put together in a general argument. They all go back to that same theme."
So what choice did he have? Some conservatives have also claimed that Obama is concealing the fact that he is a Manchurian candidate, trained in a fundamentalist madrassah to destroy America. By Stephanopoulos' logic, he has no choice but to ask him, "Senator, when Islamic terrorists made you into their puppet, did they create a secret code phrase that, when spoken to you, would activate the part of your brain devoted to carrying out their sinister plan, and if so, what is that code phrase?"
Stephanopoulos wasn't the only one holding out the specter of the Republicans' vicious attack machine to justify his own parroting of those coming attacks -- and displaying the standard contempt thrown at Democrats who are supposedly incapable of parrying them. Michael Hirsh of Newsweek blasted the "timorous Democratic advisors" who can't bear to stand up to the GOP and display that inveterate wimpiness Hirsh called "the party's peculiar pathology." "At a time when he should be taking on John McCain," Hirsh wrote of Obama, "he's being forced to talk about lapel pins." Forced by whom? If you thought Hirsh was criticizing his fellow journalists, you'd be wrong. Obama is just being "forced," by someone unnamed.
To many in the press corps, Obama is just naïve for characterizing things like flag pins, the patriotism of his former pastor, and subversive activities committed 40 years ago by a guy he sort of knows as "distractions." When he noted that the debate was nearly half over before an actual policy issue was mentioned, they were dismissive. Appearing on MSNBC the next day, Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle said with a mocking tone, "It seems like he wants to live in this sort of perfect, high-minded political world where things like flag pins don't matter, but they really do. These things create perceptions. Everyone is saying he didn't do well. I have to agree. I don't think he did much for himself at all." The "everyone" to whom she was referring was no doubt the rest of the political reporters.
How, oh how, will he possibly stand up to those manly, tough Republicans? But watching Obama, what is most notable is that he doesn't seem particularly afraid of the GOP attack machine. Aware of it? Certainly. Preparing for it? Absolutely. But afraid of it? No.
He isn't engaging in the meta-conversation reporters have gotten used to, one in which Democrats discuss what it is they will eventually say in order to appear strong and genuine in some hoped-for facsimile of Republican posturing. His meta-conversation is about the Republicans but about the press, too -- what they are doing, what their values are, and why with each passing day they seem to prove the argument he has made for the necessity of his candidacy.
Though Obama was hardly at his sharpest at the Constitution Center on Wednesday, he seems to understand that the true effect of a debate comes from what happens after. The outpouring of disgust over Gibson's and Stephanopoulos' conduct (coming from supporters of both candidates, by the way), made the questioners into the story. So while Clinton may have performed better, Obama may ultimately reap the reward. The story of journalists obsessed with absent flag pins and sniper fire fit neatly into his argument that our politics itself is the problem.
The reporters will continue to greet that argument with scorn, of course. When you criticize the current state of politics, no one is more indicted than the press itself.