The Breakfast ClubWhen The Breakfast Club begins, we’re presented with the five characters as easily defined stereotypes – “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” In the film’s closing moments, against the backdrop of the Simple Minds classic “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Anthony Michael Hall iterates the fundamental message of the film – that although it is much simpler to perceive the characters as members of discrete categories, it’s just plain wrong, and it’s an insult to each of them to do so. The members of the Breakfast Club don’t believe that Principal Vernon’s assessment of any of them is going to change in the slightest beyond the stereotypes he has already assigned them to, and therefore feel there is no point in attempting to explain themselves to him. It would all go in one ear and out the other.

The Film: The Breakfast Club

The Song: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

The Artist: Simple Minds

Ever since this endless presidential race began – and let’s be honest, the Democratic primary has effectively been underway since Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 convention and the Republican primary hasn’t been much shorter – the traditional media has been struggling to characterize the candidates in terms of their high school equivalents. Anyone who has actually been to their high school reunion has a pretty good idea that people change a great deal in college and thereafter. Relying on a perception of a candidate’s stereotypical high school persona to make judgments about their current character and competence is an activity you might expect from someone who needs a bib to eat, has mittens pinned to their jackets, and isn’t allowed to play with matches, but certainly not from a professional journalist.

And yet, newspapers and cable chatter shows waste no time in doing exactly that. In a dreadful rerun of the 2000 elections, most recently punctuated by ABC’s puerile “debate” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (the same location, coincidentally, where Obama delivered his magnificent speech on his perceptions of race in America, which one would have though would be sufficient to address the Wright controversy), the media has spent far too much (i.e. ANY) time focusing on petty trivialities like flag pins, bowling scores, obscure associations, and anything else that enables them to avoid confronting the complicated and potentially boring subject of policy. Instead, one of their favorite subjects has been to use high school metaphors to determine whether the candidates are actually “cool.”

John McCain, whose policy aims are quite similar to Bush’s, has been dubbed the party animal and the “coolest kid in school,” riding on the reputation he built when he hosted a never-ending booze-fueled road trip aboard his Straight Talk Express in 2000. And while this image would destroy the chances of any politician when confronted with the voters of a well-informed populace, America proved in 2000 and again in 2004 that image-based politics still rules the day. Obama has been framed as the slacker, the jock who coasts through life on his charisma and his unshakeable confidence that he can hit the big shot in the big game. And Hillary Clinton has been viciously pigeonholed as the overachieving bitch, whose façade of sociability has been carefully constructed in an effort to conceal her insatiable desire to climb to the top of Washington’s power structure.

Has the media developed these frames because they’re an accurate portrayal of the candidates’ personalities? Are they really stupid enough to believe that each gaffe is a window into the candidate’s true high school identity, and that these high school characterizations are an accurate reflection of how they will govern (It might not be so wrong to make those assumption – before September 11 George W. Bush governed this with all the enthusiasm of a high school class clown who ran for class president simply as a validation of his own popularity, and this attitude was stunningly obvious during his campaign)? Is it because journalists actually believe that their readers and viewers really do see view adult society as nothing more than a more complicated reflection of their own adolescent environment? For the most part, I don’t believe so. I think it’s just because most pundits are fucking lazy.

Journalism takes work. Anyone who has ever read Woodward and Bernstein’s classic memoir “All the President’s Men” knows that far more than simply having a highly placed source, unraveling the threads leading out from the Watergate break-in took a great deal of actual digging. Deep Throat primarily acted as a guide, instructing the intrepid reporters to “follow the money” and only once they had managed to do exactly that did the true story begin to emerge. A similar feat occurred last year when Josh Marshall began to perceive a pattern in the firing of U.S. Attorneys in the country and was able to pull the pieces together to show what it actually was – a political purge. Deep Throat stands as such an interesting counterpoint to the “unnamed sources” so commonly cited today who simply feed reporters the administration’s talking points, and refuse to go on record for no other reason other than the fact that it adds flavor and potentially credibility when the source is perceived as “secret.”

A number of journalists are simply easy marks. Most notable is John Solomon, who has no reputation for being ideologically inclined, but happily accepts hunks of opposition research from either side in order to create “controversial” stories. Judith Miller and Bob Novak happily planted whatever pro-war garbage that was fed to them out of Cheney’s office in their articles. Joe Klein uncritically printed a factually false interpretation of the new FISA fed to him by Republican representative Pete Hoekstra, and later created a blogstorm of epic proportions when he attempted to dismiss the issue by writing “I have neither the time nor the legal background to figure out who’s right.” And Richard “Dickface” Cohen, in what I think is the most definitive statement of the attitude of the press corps in today’s Washington, said of the Scooter Libby commutation, “This is not an entirely trivial matter since government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off.” Why this man is still employed by the journalism industry and has not embarked on a new career selling light switches is beyond me.

It’s precisely this attitude towards their jobs which inspired Stephen Colbert to deliver his unforgettable address at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Colbert savagely mocked their propensity to act as stenographers for the Bush administration, simply writing down the statements of typically unnamed government sources rather than engaging in any actual “journalism” which requires some effort to distill actual truth from these pronouncements. Unsurprisingly, the media attempted to ignore his performance. Later, when it became clear this would be impossible, they insisted that he wasn’t funny. Eventually, they started calling him a bully. Stephen Colbert, a one hundred forty pound Frenchman, apparently managed to bully the leader of the most powerful country in the world by standing behind a microphone and poking fun at him.

There’s still some terrific journalism being performed, and I’d imagine that the state of their industry is a source of tremendous angst for the truly committed reporters out there. Sadly, I would expect that the indifference with which the truly groundbreaking stories have been welcomed by both their employers and the general public must deal blow after blow to their enthusiasm for uncovering uncomfortable truths. Instead, our coverage of the presidential campaign consists of fashion (earth tones, cleavage, flag pins), food (swiss cheese, orange juice), leisure activities (bowling), mannerisms (laughter, nose scratching), and attitudes (snobbery, temper). In other words, things that belong in the Style section.

It’s easy – watch:  An interesting case could be made (and I haven’t yet been able to find an example of this in the traditional press) that more than any high school stereotype or character, John McCain resembles Animal House’s Bluto Blutarsky. In fact I feel compelled to point out the similarities. They were both lousy students (McCain was fifth from the bottom of his class, Bluto had a GPA of 0.0), they were both party animals, both have explosive tempers, both have demonstrated difficulty keeping track of the participants in international conflicts (Bluto thought that the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, and McCain thought that Iran was supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq), and both eventually became U.S. Senators. They even have similar body types. Does that mean we should, or shouldn’t vote for John McCain because he reminds us of a fun but irresponsible character from a classic movie? Of course not. John McCain is John McCain, not Bluto Blutarsky. Voters should choose (or in my case, not choose) him based on his policies.

But that won’t keep the press from pushing those types of narratives. Just witness how many times Hillary Clinton has been compared to the character Tracy Flick from the movie Election, and how the press has cattily characterized her as a power-driven, overachieving, vindictive bitch. It doesn’t matter how many times Hillary makes genuine, heartfelt explanations as to her motivations and plans, the media will, as explained by Anthony Michael Hall’s character Brian, “see her as [they] want to see her.” And this insistence on relying on a preconception applies to each of the candidates equally. The press has already constructed a narrative for the campaign, and they’ll shape their coverage to fit their preconceptions, the same way that Principal Vernon views his students. And hopefully the voters of this country will be wise enough to look beyond these shallow stereotypes and make their own decision based on the candidate who will work tirelessly to solve the nation’s problems, rather than based on whichever one throws the best barbecue.

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