Turning the Page
The week began with Sen. John McCain still whisking away hearsay allegations that appeared in a NY Times article from the previous week, and continued with the tired narrative of McCain's "conservative problem" as he denounced the rhetoric of talk radio Randy Cunningham's repeated jabs at Sen. Barack Obama, calling him a "hack Chicago politician," and multiple references to his middle name, Hussein.
McCain and the rest of the Republican field were a sideshow, however, for the compelling Democratic contest between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton that dominated the news cycle for yet another week. It began with a picture of Obama in African tribal clothing posted on the Drudge Report, its release allegedly tied to the Clinton campaign, then pivoted to what may be the last debate of the nominating cycle last Tuesday in Cleveland. Clinton made a point at the outset that the media has leveled her campaign with harsh scrutiny while providing Obama with what is essentially a free pass.
In complaining that she always receives the first question in the debates (5 of the last 6 if you are counting), Clinton referenced a Saturday Night Live skit that insinuated that Obama needed a pillow while his chief rival was pillored by the press. She happily answered the question (I believe it was about NAFTA), and seemingly accomplished her goal, as the national media turned its attention to Obama with a critical eye, some would argue for the first time. The junior IL senator has since drawn the scrutiny of 69% of all news stories devoted to the campaign, which captured 38% of the entire news cycle.
As Obama volleyed from long shot to frontrunner, the shift in tone was all but inevitable. Indeed, in 2007 Obama was the only presidential candidate who attracted overtly positive press coverage, while McCain was the lone target of negative tone, mostly attributed to the near-death state of his campaign. In Chicago, Obama's record was thoroughly combed, the present votes while he served as a state senator, his connections with indicted fundraiser Tony Rezko, his flimsy political resume, but the national press focused instead on his unprecedented fundraising hauls, packed gymnasiums, and meteoric rise in the polls.
This changed last week. The 129 present votes resurfaced as did the shady real estate deal with Rezko. Comments made about NAFTA by a surrogate to a Canadian official also rose to the fore, with promises that Obama was doing little more than pandering denied, but seemingly proven accurate through recent disclosures. Whether these revelations will stick and propel Clinton to victories in today's contests remains to be seen, but the honeymoon is apparently over, and it leads to the larger question I addressed last week as to the role of the press in politics.
The media is without doubt citizens' window to the world. We understand that reporting, particularly within the Beltway, is based on relationships with sources, and journalists cannot bite the hands that feed them. We do, however, demand and expect objectivity, not to mention the watchdog role intended by the free press protections embedded in the First Amendment. This requires a move beyond cash, crowds, and charts to the very essence of the decisions we make on Election Day: Who is most qualified to serve as the leader of the free world? How do candidates stand on various issues of importance, and how to their proposals compare with one another? What would they actually do if elected.
Despite the predominance of campaign coverage, many are left to enter the voting booth with scant information to answer these aforementioned questions. True, the press does answer them in part over the too lengthy cycle, and citizens must do a better job of searching for the information they need to make meaningful decisions, but the press, in their role as gatekeeper, must also rise to the task.
Instead, we are left to a contest of personalities. The remaining Democratic contenders actually share many of the same issue positions, so scrutiny should then shift to personal and professional experiences. Perhaps the press turned the page this past week, maybe in time for citizens to make informed decisions on "Critical Tuesday." Regardless, we as readers, viewers and listeners should demand more going forward as the Democratic contest likely lingers on, with the general election hovering in the shadows.
Check back here tomorrow for an analysis of today's contests, and also for a podcast recorded by Nathan Richie and myself as we digest one more pivotal day of primaries and caucuses. Also, stay tuned for the release of new lesson plans addressing the twin issues of press coverage and polling in the context of the presidential campaign. In this spirit, we will be hosting a teacher seminar on site on April 11 to address these topics. More information on this to follow, but free registration is available by clicking here.