Just How Useless Are the Political Media?
If a bunch of journalists from the country’s most prominent media outlets played a friendly game of beach flag football with Barack Obama, it's hard to overestimate the magnitude of the meltdown that would have inevitably occurred in the always-on-red-alert Drudge/FOX News/Breitbart universe. Nary a peep was heard from those quarters, however, when Mitt Romney sauntered out on a sunny Sunday afternoon last weekend in south Florida for some quick fun. He was to engage in a good-natured scrimmage with reporters from the New York Times and elsewhere.
Pause and simply try to imagine the sheer scope of the ensuing freakout if this had been Obama. That's not to say playing flag football on the beach with Obama would’ve somehow been OK; in fact, playing flag football on the beach seems a rather inappropriate activity for the media to undertake with any presidential candidate, especially given that this was just one day before the final presidential debate. While Secret Service agents played offensive line for Ann Romney and smiling reporters scored goofy touchdowns, deadly skirmishes continued across Syria, Beirut was in crisis after the assassination of a top-ranking official, and relations between Iran and Israel deteriorated further. If nothing else, the journalists’ afternoon of beach fun was questionable “optics,” as they say in media-ese.
It’s interesting that Romney’s aides orchestrated a beach flag football game against elite reporters without fear of partisan backlash. This would seem to indicate that Romney is no longer worried about catering to the right wing’s darker, more conspiracy-minded elements, as he was during the GOP primaries. Back in that insane, pandering campaign, Romney declared himself “severely conservative” and granted exclusive interviews to unhinged sites like Breitbart.com. (If you haven't had the pleasure, take a few moments and scroll through some of the comments left on a typical Breitbart article. By which I mean, don’t do that, ever.)
This may trouble the Breitbart folks (everything troubles the Breitbart folks), but as his flag football game illustrates, Romney does not particularly view the “Liberal Media” as some great enemy. And he shouldn’t—the biases of typical national campaign-trail reporters have nothing to do with liking Democrats or hating Republicans. They’re as indifferent to candidates and ideologies as rats are to what kind of cheese they’re eating. Above all, these people obsess over the election “narrative,” which can be shaped to favor one or the other candidate and which only occasionally has a glancing resemblance to reality.
How the process typically works is our policy-pundit-media class declares certain changes to “the narrative” ahead of time, and then interpret whatever follows as validation of this preordained “narrative.” Let’s take the first presidential debate—such a textbook example of “narrative”-tinkering that Robert Wright of The Atlantic correctly foretold exactly how journalists would react. “The essential property of the new narrative is that it inject new drama into the race,” Wright wrote, and since Romney appeared certain to be heading for a McCain-sized defeat, the only direction he could go, “narratively” speaking, was up.
Romney probably had a slight “optics” advantage in the first debate, thanks to talking like a confident human being—but Obama didn't suffer the catastrophic loss that media furiously portrayed it as afterward. His presentation was just inferior to the other guy’s. No matter though, because Obama took a major hit in the polls as a consequence, and only just now seems to have blunted Romney's post-debate momentum. The real reason everyone started squawking about Obama’s alleged “implosion” is that covering a close contest is much more fun, exciting, and profitable than covering a blowout. Andrew Sullivan’s hyperventilating in this vein drew considerable interest. “Devastating, just devastating,” is way more exhilarating than “nothing much is going on.”
Obama did not by any means excel in that Denver debate. He acted weak, and he flummoxed supporters by neglecting to challenge Romney’s baseless assertions. But neither was the president's performance as game-changingly bad as many so vigorously proclaimed. Predictably, pundits based their analysis almost entirely on “style” and “expectations,” which gave Romney the edge; he seemed “presidential” and “in command,” where Obama suffered a flub or two.
Absent was any acknowledgment that in keeping with his well-worn opportunism, Romney did plenty of obfuscating, and notably had the gall to talk up the Massachusetts healthcare plan he so strenuously distanced himself from during the GOP primaries. But because pundits are largely disinterested in substance or policy, they decreed Romney the clear victor on style points alone. So the “narrative” went.
For pundits, debates are feverishly anticipated, breathtakingly dramatic events. But for the average citizen, debates are kind of boring. They might watch, they might not, they might catch a highlight or two on TV. As a rule, members of the media are exponentially more inclined to dissect the minutiae of candidates’ stylistic quirks than the voting public. In fairness, however, the media really can’t help themselves—they’re absolutely captivated by all the sound and fury, not to mention the lavish perks.
At the University of Denver debate, Anheuser-Busch generously provided an on-the-house selection of chicken cutlets, vegetables, and beer for malnourished journalists. I noticed Tom Brokaw enjoying a meal. I also saw the Washington Post’s Dan Balz happily traversing the “Spin Room” wearing an official “Debate 2012” ballcap, which had been gifted to visiting media members. We also received a commemorative tote bag that was plastered with a Wells Fargo logo.
There is no real point in physically showing up to a debate if one only wants to conduct straightforward debate analysis. (Ron Brownstein, editorial director for the National Journal—“the most credible, objective, and authoritative voice in the Beltway,” according to its website—told me at the venue that he had actually pre-written his post-debate piece—though he would go back and revise if things shook out differently than expected.) So the media descended on Denver that day to enjoy themselves, and indeed, good times were had by all. Journalists delighted in friendly conversations with campaign staffers and high-powered lobbyists. Major Garrett, congressional correspondent for the National Journal, chatted warmly with FOX News’s Bret Baier and Romney adviser Kevin Madden. Lawrence O’Donnell whispered something into the ear of David Axelrod. Jan Crawford of CBS mixed and mingled with various GOP operatives.
Christine Czernejewski, director of Communications-Government Affairs at Anheuser-Busch and former press secretary for Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), roamed the floor greeting guests; she told me her company believed that sponsoring the debate was a wise “investment” in part because it indicates “good corporate citizenship.” Anheuser-Busch is also afforded a welcome opportunity to promote their products “to all people of adult, legal age,” she said. Gotta love that American entrepreneurial spirit!
After the debate concluded, journalists glowed with glee. MSNBC political guru Chuck Todd, in an interview with some foreign press, declared it the “single most substantive debate in the history of televised debates in this country.”
“I’d go back to 1960,” he later told me. “At least since ‘76.”
So, in Todd’s mind, the most substantive presidential debate of all time featured exchanges like this one:
JIM LEHRER: “Two minutes, Governor, on the role of government. Your view?”
MITT ROMNEY: “Well, first, I love great schools.”
This would be merely amusing if the media’s fixation with “narrative” didn’t actually affect the race. But it does. While a lot of people watched the first Obama-Romney debate, lots of people also did not watch; many only heard about it via media chatter and maybe from their friends/family/acquaintances. What major pundits say really does make a difference, unfortunately, since conventional wisdom trickles down to voters who don’t have the interest or the time to pay attention—all they’ll hear is Romney “exceeded expectations” or Obama looked “unpresidential,” and they won’t know that those verdicts were arrived at on Twitter 20 minutes into the debate by people largely disinterested in substance or policy.
Stay tuned for more “narrative” changes in the campaign, whether or not anything legitimately noteworthy happens. Campaign trail reporters and pundits must feed the beast with a constant stream of hot new “breaking” news, because they’re unable or unwilling to talk about the nuances of the candidates’ platforms (or lack thereof). As the infamous flag football incident demonstrates, to them this is all just one big game.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.