With so much time and space to fill, the opportunity for the news media to cultivate a civic dialogue about the presidential race has been drowned out by a cacophony of competing “watch me” monologues by commentators on the air and online. We have endured months of “controversies” that are now part of the pile of dirty political laundry sensible voters have to search through to find the real issues.
Given the speed with which a story can bounce around the world to fill any microsecond of news void, the media have become an unwitting weapon in the political arsenal. According to one survey last week, taken even before Gov. Sarah Palin spoke to the Republican convention as McCain's vice-presidential choice, over half of all voters already thought the “media” was trying to hurt her image and reputation.
But looking at it calmly, here's what happened: A relative unknown was nominated by McCain to be his vice president. Responsible journalists, and some veteran Republican pols, were trying to figure out just who she was, given that she could be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from running the country. As it turns out, many have concluded that, including Sen. Obama, no candidate for high office, perhaps ever, has as thin a resume as she does.
McCain's choice was calculated to create media buzz (an amazing 37.2 million viewers watched Palin's speech). But Republicans tried to have it both ways, bemoaning the scrutiny she was immediately put under, crying foul, sexism and double-standard, attributing all of it to news organizations with a liberal agenda.
As long as the “punditry class” needs to create and extend controversy over insignificant matters, the public is not served. The blogosphere, right, left and just wrong, feeds a pernicious media beast. Political stories are measured in terms of news cycles, and the impact of the cable news herd stampeding toward the next story cannot be overstated.
Politics is marketing and image-making: It's hard to imagine getting excited about any of the other potential McCain choices for the VP slot. But it's apparent that the media will become villains in this election, a scenario the McCain/Palin loyalists created last week—though Hillary Clinton also pointed fingers at the media as her fortunes waned, as did Spiro Agnew, another Republican vice president with negligible distinguishing legislative attributes.
In fact, it's not the media. It's the business—of filling time and creating microbursts of pointed, sometimes pointless, commentary that inflame rather than inform. Media outlets must be doubly vigilant against the spinners given how important they have become in the process, and the fact that they hire many of them.
Another study last week found that only 1% of campaign coverage during the Democratic convention was about issues. The pols may want to spin the campaign into a popularity contest, but the media, we think, needn't fuel that fire. Recalling a famous old news network slogan—“We report, you decide”—everybody in our business should truly adopt the standard of cool, undistorted fairness, and let the election be decided on real issues. That's a reform the whole nation could get behind.