By Bill Boyarsky
Most of today’s political journalists are not ideologues. It’s worse than that. They are like movie people, totally driven by the story line.
I admit to that weakness myself. I love a good story. I want a beginning, middle and end, a story that will make people laugh, cry or even think. A dramatic story is especially critical to members of the media who are fighting for clicks, viewers, listeners, readers or whatever else you call today’s scattered, disloyal and short-attention-span-afflicted audiences.
That, more than anything, explains the sudden end to the long and often passionate romance between the media and Sen. Barack Obama, now leading in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Obama story, so appealing just a couple of months ago, is old. The media have tired of him. As often happens with lovers, reporters began to notice flaws. They began to look around for something new. And what’s new is Sen. John McCain.
No matter that McCain is old and a carbon copy of President George Bush when it comes to Iraq and the faltering economy, the two biggest issues in the country. McCain’s got a great story, composed not only of his years as a prisoner of war but also the debilitating experience of being consigned to the political graveyard by the media just last year. The journalists, having heaped scorn on his campaigning abilities, are now admiring his political skills.
Seen in this context, it’s possible to understand the questioning at the ABC debate in Philadelphia between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. It was a perfect example of how the media set the agenda by emphasizing one point over another, furthering the newest story line.
Moderator George Stephanopoulos told Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times that he and his colleague Charles Gibson had decided to focus on what he called “electability questions.”
“The questions we asked are what the campaigns are debating every single day and are being debated in the political world every day. The question of who is the most electable Democrat is at the core of it,” he said.
That’s not at the core of it. The war is at the core of it. So is the economy. Electability is a subject for political insiders, not normal people.
Journalists have a huge amount of discretion in choosing questions. And their questions shape their audience’s perception of events. In a study of coverage of the president, Joanne M. Miller and Jon A. Krosnick wrote, ” ... When the contemporary news media’s searchlights move from one topic to another, they can produce dramatic changes in the public’s evaluation of their president’s job performance. ...”
The power of journalistic discretion was shown by questions asked Obama by Stephanopoulos and Gibson.
“Senator, two questions,” said Stephanopoulos. “No. 1, do you think Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright [Obama’s retired pastor] loves America as much as you do? And No. 2, if you get the nomination, what will you do when those sermons are played on television again and again and again?”
Obama replied, “If it’s not this, then it would be something else. I promise you, if Sen. Clinton gets the nomination, there will be a whole bunch of video clips about other things. ... The notion that, somehow, that the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me but by somebody who is associated with me, that I have disowned, I think doesn’t give the American people enough credit.”
Gibson followed up on a Pennsylvania woman’s question on why Obama doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin. ” ... It comes up again and again when we talk to voters. ... It is all over the Internet. And it’s something of a theme that Sens. Clinton and McCain advisers agree could give you a major vulnerability if you’re the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?”
“Well, look, I revere the American flag and I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country,” Obama replied. “I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for this country.”
His replies were excellent, but the questions themselves fed the story line that McCain will use in the fall if Obama is the Democratic nominee: He’s got questionable associations. He won’t wear the flag. This guy doesn’t measure up to the job.
Framing the contest in such intangibles plays to McCain’s strengths and puts Obama on the defensive. This mindless pursuit of the hottest story line also has the effect of submerging discussion of economic hard times and the war in Iraq.
All that is certain is that if Clinton wins big in some of the remaining primaries, she’ll be the hot story all over again, the new “comeback kid,” just as she was after New Hampshire. Obama’s luster would return with an unexpectedly big primary win over her. And McCain would be forgotten for a time. Luckily, the journalists and pundits have a short attention span. And they’re often wrong.
AP photo / Jae C. Hong
Missed opportunity: The line of questioning at Wednesday night’s ABC-sponsored debate favored “electability” issues over real politics.