(Note: This post is divided into two parts. To read the second half of this post, click here.)
As the Iowa caucuses draw closer and politicians become increasingly concerned with making momentum-stalling gaffes on the campaign trail that could derail their nominations, the media they have relied on for much of the year to help shape and advance their campaigns has now become a double-edged sword.
Politicians love the element of control--control over their message, control over their legislation, and control over their opposition. However, the one variable that is often out of politicians' control is the media. The media are notorious for building people up one day and then savagely tearing them down the next. The media are also infamous for catching politicians red-handed and providing a means by which moments of infamy can be replayed over and over again, as former Virginia Senator George Allen could attest to.
However, one of the most enduring criticisms I hear from politicians, pundits, politicos, and partisans is the allegation of media bias, especially against conservatives and Republicans. These criticisms have led to fault lines, especially in cable news, as people view CNN and MSNBC as friendlier environs for Democrats and Fox News as more benevolent to Republicans.
The focus of this particular post is not to provide a content analysis of the cable newscasts or their hiring trends. While at first glance, one may buy into this notion of bias, there are so many other examples to the contrary to suggest that even if the media are not always nonpartisan, they are decidedly not biased in that they collectively constitute an equal opportunity risk.
First of all, it is important to stress that negative coverage is not always the same as biased coverage. Every campaign gets caught in stumbles, contradictions, improprieties, and awkward moments. And it is the media's duty to report on those. The media have a responsibility to their audience to address legitimate, substantive issues, such as what role Bill Clinton would play in a Hillary Clinton presidency, why Barack Obama voted "present" (rather than "yea" or "nay") on several controversial issues when he was in the Illinois state legislature, whether Mitt Romney is a credible conservative given his moderate rhetoric in the past, and whether Mike Huckabee has ethical problems. This should be fair game. For politicians to bemoan this type of coverage simply because it's unflattering displays a certain level of silliness that is beneath them. It would behoove these politicians to simply own up to their mistakes or address these negative stories head on, rather than just whining about "media hit jobs."
However, the media have also gone to great lengths to cover frivolous nonissues that have poisoned our political dialogue. The greatest tragedy of this coverage is that it has often come at the expense of discussion about more important topics.
Earlier this year, Barack Obama had to deal with insulting questions like "Is he Black enough?" These questions frustrated Obama so much that his wife Michelle even got involved. And when Oprah Winfrey endorsed him, he had to deal with stories about her only doing so because he was Black. Why did this endorsement and the debate that followed receive more airtime than his views on why illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses?
We also have the media to thank for associating the word "cackle" with Hillary Clinton. When was the last time a politician's laugh received so much attention? And why should we care? I remember there being a story a few weeks ago about Clinton's shoelaces becoming untied. Are these people serious? It seems that the media do not allow politicians to be human anymore. Imagine the fallout if a politician couldn't suppress a burp at a diner at a campaign stop while the cameras were rolling! What madness!
John Edwards hasn't escaped the knives of the media either, as the stories about his mansion and expensive haircuts are well known to everyone. On the money front, Mitt Romney is actually the wealthiest candidate running for president this year, but the "rich" label has stuck to Edwards, thanks to the media. But in defense of both Edwards and Romney, why should one's wealth even be an issue at all? Shouldn't we want to elect a candidate who knows how to manage and grow his money? Would we really be comfortable electing someone who makes $45,000 a year and pays $750 a month for a 3-bedroom apartment? And why is it okay to talk about a $400 haircut while we ignore politicians who spend their money on exotic houses, imported wines, and designer suits?
If Mike Huckabee thinks he's being unfairly targeted with questions about religion now, he should look at Mitt Romney. Media coverage about Romney's faith rivals coverage about Obama's "Blackness" in terms of sheer absurdity. However, perhaps to evangelical Christians (regarding Romney) and skeptical Blacks and Whites (regarding Obama), maybe these really are important issues. But the media are complicit in fueling this dissonance by devoting so much time to issues that have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to one's ability to govern effectively. If the media could use their influence to make John Edwards' haircut a national story, couldn't they also have used their influence to minimize the significance of Romney's religion or Obama's race?
This is not to say that all of Mike Huckabee's gripes are unjustified, as he is now having the content of his ads scrutinized. First, he received criticism for not being serious when he used Chuck Norris in one of his earliest campaign ads. Then he was criticized again for using the term "Christian leader" to describe himself in another ad. The latest controversy is about the perceived image of a cross in his latest "Merry Christmas" ad even though the "cross" was really just a part of a bookshelf. Why not just take these ads at face value and focus on his platform?
Rudy Giuliani has had to deal with questions about his relationship with his ex-wives and children. Some people might say these are important stories because it's important that the President be "a family man." But why? Ronald Reagan was on his second wife and Bill Clinton had tinges of infidelity swirling about him, but both were elected. After all, when the bombs are falling and your finger is on the nuclear button, does anybody really care if you played board games with your children every Friday night?
There was a time when Fred Thompson's wife was receiving more media coverage than Fred Thompson himself. That talk has been replaced by talk about how little energy he has on the campaign trail and how disappointing his candidacy has been. Talk about his actual record, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find. Of course, prior to jumping in the race, the media (and conservatives alike) had annointed him as the great conservative hope for disaffected Republicans based on the fact that he "looked" presidential and was an actor. Is that all it takes to get people to pay attention to you? Where was the "liberal media bias" when everyone was fawning over Fred?
Joe Biden was lambasted by the media for using the phrase "clean and articulate" to describe Barack Obama. I doubt that his campaign has ever fully recovered from the damage this nonstory caused. More people remember the word "articulate" than know about his well thought out Iraq plan, which is a travesty given that Iraq is probably the single most important foreign policy challenge facing this nation.
Dennis Kucinich unfairly received a question about UFOs during a debate this fall. Media outlets had a field day covering the aftermath of that. The fact that his views on labor, health care, Iraq, and impeachment are shared by a large segment of the Democratic base doesn't seem to matter because everyone just remembers "Dennis and the UFOs."
It seems that the only candidates who have not been brutalized by the media's focus on pabulum have been John McCain, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd. McCain had to deal with stories about disarray in his campaign and running out of money, but those were legitimate issues because they struck at his own viability. That's simply negative coverage, not stupid coverage.
Bill Richardson has generally flown under the radar. He received favorable media coverage for his "Job Interview" ads and has also been criticized for running a lackluster campaign and performing poorly at the debates. However, the media have not really piled onto him.
Dodd hasn't generated much coverage in general, be it good or bad (aside from joking about the fly in his hair at one debate). It could be because he is mired in the 1-2% range of most polls. Or it could be because he hasn't had any breakout moments that generated news. Or it could be that he hasn't made any mistakes. Or it could be that he doesn't fit into the "Clinton vs. Obama" storyline in the Democratic race. Whatever it is, it's too bad because he is a competent, disciplined politician that sits in the Democratic mainstream.
Ron Paul is in a totally different category. After being treated as something of a gadfly for most of the year, the media have been forced to take him a bit more seriously as of late because of his unbelievable fundraising. I get the impression that nobody really knows how to cover his campaign because nobody expects him to win even though he has such strong support online and is raising so much money.
One final thought. Regarding the presidential race, the media commonly talk about six Republican candidates (Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, McCain, Giuliani, and Paul). However, they usually only talk about three Democrats (Edwards, Obama, and Clinton). Yes, Richardson, Dodd, and Biden are polling far worse than Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are, but they are all credible candidates because they are raising money and have campaign staff in several states. If anything, the media are biased in favor of the Republicans regarding the presidential contest because while they are covering almost all of the Republican candidates (excluding the single-issue and vanity candidates), they are only covering half of the Democrats. This is not to say that this coverage is always meaningful, however.
(Note: This post is divided into two parts. To read the second half of this post, click here.)