We’re at a point in the presidential election when reporters, news directors, anchors, and all the other media powers who help frame election issues are getting weary. Weary of the back and forth, the up and down, and the he said/she said of the Democratic race for the nomination. Feeling like there is very little to talk about, Old Media have, by and large, resorted to promoting the cheapest form of news programming, the Freak Show. If you’ve had a chance to read The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 by John Harris and Mark Halperin, you’ll know what I mean by Freak Show. However, you don’t even have to open Harris and Halperin’s book to know what it is. All you have to do is channel-surf between the three 24-hour cable news channels to see it for yourself. Every now and then there are actual debates over political issues. Nowadays, however, it’s an endless variation of the Freak Show — which elevates trivial political matters into the only issues that matter by shouting, gossip mongering, spewing half-truths and bald-faced lies with a blurring rapidity. Matt Drudge, 24-hour cable news, talk radio, and political blogs are purveyors of the Freak Show, and it would be easy to dismiss if the Freak Show’s formula for getting people to pay attention if it weren’t so effective. Old Media outlets are now eager to jump on the bandwagon. Why? Because if they can get ratings by serving up trash, then why not serve up a steaming pile of it and see if the piggies will come to feed.
The Freak Show is only part of the story, though. Another part is how our esteemed media (Old and New) quickly crown the new prince/President before people have had a chance to vote in the general election. If you’re in the media’s good graces, they will shower you with love — even if you’re routinely making gaffes and saying things that are patently false. Sure, political gaffes will make the news, but it will usually be relegated to middle of the newspaper, programmed deeply in a nightly newscast, or briefly mentioned as a headline news piece. Case in point: John McCain. Those in the press who travel with McCain generally like the guy. They like his humor, they like the fact that he invited the press corp to his house for a BBQ, they admire his bravery during the Vietnam war, and they the see him as our next president. When he makes a gaffe like the one below, it’s reported, and then quickly forgotten.
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However, if you’re Howard Dean, an odd victory yell plays over and over for weeks – if not months:
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Or, let’s just look at the last debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — whose “up/down/win/lose” campaigns are breathlessly waiting for the Pennsylvania primary results — were treated by ABC news hosts, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. We’re in a economic recession, the mortgage crisis is, yes, a crisis, we’re fighting two wars, we have a huge budget deficit, we owe “foreign creditors” an insane amount of money, and let’s not forget how much a barrel of oil is these days. But in the Freak Show, all of that doesn’t matter. Here’s what matters:
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I give Clinton and Obama kudos for trying to redirect the debate, but Obama put it best when he said: “What the American people want are not distractions. What they want to figure out how we’re actually going to deliver on health care, how we’re going to deliver better jobs for people, how we’re going to improve their incomes, how we’re going to send them to college … that’s what we have to focus on.” But what the press hears is: “Blah, blah, blah, Clinton is adopting the tactics of the Right Wing, blah, blah, blah, I can see how people are offended, blah, blah, blah.”
Am I talking about bias? You bet! However, it’s not a “liberal” or “conservative” bias that’s at play here. Rather, it’s a political bias based on who the press anoints the winner — and it really doesn’t matter if the candidate is a Democrat or Republican. If a candidate doesn’t do enough to court the press at the beginning of the campaign, may the political gods have mercy on them because, as you can see with Obama — and Clinton, to a lesser extent — they will be put on the defensive for a comment that becomes fodder for the echo chamber of the Freak Show. The power of this mode of media manipulation will be tested in the general election as the opposing campaigns use their personal media (i..e, social networking sites and email) to communicate with their “base.” It’s too early to say, but my guess is that with the rise of “Facebook politics” the Freak Show’s power to frame non-issues into issues will wane — or so I hope.