Entry from August 23, 2012

Today’s Washington Post has a rather prissy piece by Paul Farhi complaining about how politicians use the media for their own purposes in running critical ads about each other.

In a new 30-second TV ad, Mitt Romney attacks President Obama and his aides for their campaign claims. Or, more precisely, the ad lets others do the attacking: “Scraping bottom,” reads a quote attributed to the Chicago Tribune. “Disgusting,” says another that identifies ABC News as the source. “Unfair attacks,” says a third, crediting CBS News. Not to be outdone, Obama has his own movie-review style blurbs in his ads. In a series that questions Romney’s business career and personal wealth, the commercials carry quotes from Vanity Fair, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe, among others. . . Both campaigns are happy to embrace the media when they appear to back up their latest claims or criticism. No ad in this campaign seems fully dressed until it wears the mainstream media’s Good Housekeeping seal — a bit of print containing an approving comment or a corroborating factoid sourced to a brand-name news organization.

Hey! They’re using our credibility (“the mainstream media’s Good Housekeeping seal”) to confer respectability on their sleazy partisan attacks. The nerve! But doesn’t this objection presuppose that the media have any credibility — or any more than the rabidly hostile politicians they increasingly resemble? Mr Farhi is perhaps correct to write that, for President Obama anyway, “the goal in circulating such stories” is “to influence reporters from other mainstream news organizations to pick up a theme or line of attack.” For Mr Romney, however, there must be quite a different purpose, which is to lend credence to his charges by citing the words of those who, as we have very good reasons for assuming, must be on the other side.

It’s also rather ungrateful of Mr Farhi not to show more appreciation that the candidates have adopted the media’s own standard for newsworthy criticism — namely, that it is appears in the media. Only when the media report on themselves, they are usually a bit more subtle about it, characteristically using the passive voice (“Romney was criticized”) to suggest that it is someone other than themselves doing the criticizing. See, for example, Dana Milbank of the Post who recently wrote that

Mitt Romney, returning to New Hampshire on Monday with his new running mate, lasted only about 30 seconds before stumbling right into the issue that has dogged his candidacy like no other. “Gosh, I feel like I’m almost a New Hampshire resident,” the winner of the state’s Republican primary told the crowd at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “It would save me some tax dollars, I think.” D’oh! Does Mr. Thirteen Percent really want to remind everybody how determined he is to keep his tax returns private? Maybe so. The Republican standard-bearer seems to take a stubborn pride in his refusal to cough up details.

Mr Milbank doesn’t even pretend that there is any other criticism of Romney here than his own — and later that of his Post colleague Greg Sargent. Yet he implies that there must be lots of other people who might otherwise be disposed to support Romney and who must be scandalized by this reminder that he is rich and, like most other rich people, tries to save money on his taxes.

The recent trouble over an ill-considered remark by the senatorial aspirant Todd Akin has afforded many examples of this kind of self-referential sensationalism. Thus the New York Times’s “Caucus” blog headlines as follows: “Akin Remarks Push Gender Issues to Center Stage.” No they don’t. It’s the New York Times and the rest of the media that are pushing “gender issues” to center stage. Mr Akin is just the most recently convenient pretext, now that Sandra Fluke is openly campaigning for the President, for the media to make their own reiteration of the Democrats’ charge that Republicans are waging “war on women,” since this serves the former as a distraction from the sorts of subjects — jobs, the economy, unending trillion-dollar deficits — that the latter would prefer to be talking about. Media manufactured scandal always demands that we ask cui bono? Who is benefitted? It’s remarkable how often the beneficiary is the Democratic party — which should tell you all you need to know about that Good Housekeeping seal.

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