Entry from October 9, 2008

Sometimes you can only shake your head in wonderment at the obtuseness of the media in failing to understand the world that they themselves have created. In a column titled “Running from Reality” in today’s Washington Post, the veteran commentator and pundit, David Broder cited something that stood out as “strange” even in this, the “strangest of all presidential contests” —

John McCain and Barack Obama have been asked twice — once in the Mississippi debate and again on Tuesday night — what their priorities would be. McCain flat-out refused to choose, arguing that the United States can do it all. Obama mentioned energy, health care and education but did not acknowledge that he might have to choose among them. Similarly, they declined to spell out what sacrifices they might have to ask Americans to make, beyond moderating their energy use or easing their demands for Washington-financed projects. It was a stunning rejection of reality.

A rejection of reality, certainly, but what on earth is “stunning” about it? What would be stunning would be a candidate with the courage — more like the suicidal foolhardiness — even to acknowledge “reality,” let alone accept it. Mr Broder’s Post colleague, Tom Shales, had similarly complained that neither candidate “gave a particularly electrifying performance and neither seemed truly responsive to the current frightening headlines about the potential collapse of the U.S. economy.” He, too, used the “R” word, noting that “the debate had the aura of an almost meaningless ritual being conducted in a soundproof room while outside, panic and calamity were spreading like giant cracks in the earth. The candidates seemed protected from reality rather than having met on the field of battle to confront it.”

Dear, dear. Can it be that two such seasoned observers of the American political scene and the media’s coverage of it could be surprised at this evasion of reality, or not understand the reasons for it? More interestingly, can they really be as unaware as they seem to be of their own part, and that of their media colleagues, in making the debates as boring as they are almost bound to be?

For there are only two ways in which candidates at all levels are allowed to compete with each other under the ground rules set up for them by the media. One is in mouthing platitudes, truisms and inspirational autobiographical vignettes, and the other is in casting aspersions on the moral or intellectual character or the bona fides of one’s opponent. That’s how the thing has been set up to run because (a) anything substantive would be too boring to command the sort of audience the media have come to depend on and (b) the substantive differences between the candidates are, in any case, relatively small — though that, too, is probably as a result of the media’s demands — and must be made to seem much larger than they are, as well as more exciting and dramatic, by being moralized and personalized. Besides, a debate which took place in the realm of what the media wise men are pleased to call reality would provide no interpretative role for the media themselves in telling their audience what the candidate’s words really mean.

I can only assume those who cover the election only in terms of what their critics call the “horse race” have so far taken this approach for granted that they don’t see how politics has adapted to the tenor of their coverage. The gaffe, the manufactured outrage, the mini-scandal, all these are the media’s contribution to the coverage of politics, but we are now at the point where the coverage and the politics are indistinct and inseparable. The candidates are playing the same game, trying to catch each other out in falsehood or scandal just like the media, which means that nothing will ever be discussed in a political campaign that is not as bland and safe as they can make it. When your first consideration is protecting yourself from scandal, safe means sticking to the general, the inspirational and the utopian — or the sins of the other guy. No one is going to ask for sacrifice or the choice between unpalatable options because both the media and his opponent would immediately treat it as a gaffe, a breakthrough to something that might be unpopular and therefore cause him to lose the election. And who’s going to win or lose the election is the only story the media really care about.

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