Trivial Pursuits


Barack Obama came out of nowhere thanks to a smart organization, a telegenic presence and a message, literally, of hope.

But before his presence galvanized voters, the smart money was on Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee.

Thus the primary season evolved into history in the making. Either Democrats would nominate a woman for president, or an African-American. It is a compelling story that unfortunately has been covered by most of the press, most of the time, as a kind of traveling circus. Last month, when ABC telecast its debate with Clinton and Obama, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were roundly ridiculed for their trite questions, so much so that ABC News actually covered the uproar it itself had caused. Less than centering all of the blame on those two men, however, we might as well pass the brickbats all around. The news media generally has covered the Clinton-Obama race mainly by dwelling on trivia—why doesn't Obama wear an American flag lapel pin?

The media has doted on Obama. Up until the past few weeks, he easily won the “earned media” race. Paid media is the TV and radio time you have to buy. Earned media is all that news and analysis coverage on the cable TV networks and broadcast networks and blogs and Websites. Saturday Night Live has lacerated the press for its obsequious treatment of Obama.

Those easy times are over, and they should be. What the media has made, the media can help unmake. That has happened over the past few weeks as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. YouTube videos and then his speech at the National Press Club have unsteadied Obama.

We don't say this with disrespect or disdain toward Obama's candidacy. Our disdain is directed inward. In fact, the media should be searching its soul about its failure to uncover the relationship between Obama and his pastor months ago, when potential candidates should get a vetting and viewers be given more information about who they will be voting for.

It might have been a service to Obama as well as viewers, since there would have been more time to defuse the issue, if it can be defused. Wright has given fiery sermons for years, and Obama's membership in his church was no secret.

In fact, what has remained virtually a secret, even in a 24/7 news environment, is determining where Hillary Clinton and Obama stand on many—make that most—issues. With a political race this fractious, and also one this extended, news media had the time and the responsibility to probe the real campaign stances the front-runners hold. Instead, we know Obama can't bowl and that Clinton didn't dodge bullets when she visited war-torn Bosnia.

The news media may wind up contributing to the best political theater in years if the Democratic convention lives up to some pundits' expectations, but it might have been avoided had the media spent more time digging into policy rather than dwelling on the trivial pursuits of a man and a woman. One of them may become the leader of the free world.