For somebody who works in journalism, I really strongly dislike the American press sometimes. It boils over into out-and-out gall during Presidential elections, when news is scarce, and reporters start slavering after the musings of pundits like starved dogs. We find ourselves incapable of sustaining any significant focus on issues, or even stylistic distinctions between candidates that have real implications on how they will lead. Instead, we seed these manufactured clouds of perceptions and expectations over and over, hoping against hope to produce a storm. And if we should happen upon a gaffe or a gotcha moment, we actually praise the gods and we feast.
Bittergate, day six.
Last Friday, it was reported that Barack Obama made some stupid comments to a group of his supporters in San Francisco. His opponents offered this up to the press (of course), and there was great rejoicing in Newsland (of course). We sent forth our best pundits to etymologize the words “bitter” and “cling,” and our best reporters to spread the findings of the pundits. The pundits and various politicians expressed outrage on behalf of various constituencies, and the reporters reported the expressions of outrage, without attempting to correlate them to any actual feelings on the part of any actual swath of the voting populace (of course).
The standard assumption among the politerati seems to be that in his severely garbled way, Obama was making a variant on the What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument, that cynicism that any political party represents a downtrodden voter’s economic interests causes her to vote on the basis of her social values instead, choosing whichever party whose social values are most aligned with hers. (This interpretation is a selective parsing of the comments in question, which were so rambling that some parsing is required to derive any point from them at all. In subsequent attempts to clarify the point, Obama has struck somewhat closer to this interpretation.)
The comments and clarifications leave plenty of room for legitimate journalistic probing on numerous fronts: How accurate is this characterization of voter behavior? How might these beliefs about voters influence Obama’s actions once he takes office? Does Senator Clinton have an alternative claim for why lower-income populations tend to vote disproportionately Republican, and if so, what is it? I’d actually be interested in what reporters would surface in pursuing these questions.
But predictably, coverage has remained obsessed with the entirely uninteresting and non-journalistic issue of what various pundits and politicians are saying about the comments.
Tonight, there is a debate. If, please Lord, one of the candidates makes some actual news during this debate, the news cycle will pivot and we might get some reporting again. But there might still be an opportunity to salvage some shred of journalistic good from Bittergate. If I ruled the world, Obama would say something like this:
Listen, Senator Clinton, and you media-folks. I made a claim in San Francisco that was really badly-worded and somewhat incoherent. Let me tell you exactly what I was trying to communicate — not what I ‘should have said,’ but what was at the root of those stupid remarks that night. I believe that there are a lot of folks who don’t think any politician has their economic interests in mind. So when they go to the voting booth, they vote on the basis of social issues, things that I believe have a less-significant impact on the quality of their lives, but that they care passionately about.
I believe we can make the case that wherever we actually come down on questions of social values, that we do respect these values, especially the one our Constitution holds most dear — that we each have a fundamental right to practice our own values for ourselves, and a responsibility to respect each other’s. And I believe if we make an honest case that we will fight to make their lives better, to make it so they can get well when they are sick, to give them the best education anywhere in the world, to ensure that they are not dying in a highly expensive war that’s not making us one bit safer, that we can bring these folks together to focus not on beliefs that divide us, but on real actions that can make a real change in the fortunes of some of these downtrodden communities.
That is exactly what I believe. I’ve weighed the evidence, and that right there is my claim. It is an opinion, and if you folks in the press are doing your job, you will investigate how sound it is, whether I am making a valid point, or whether the facts contradict it. And you, Senator Clinton, will stop parsing to death my stupid choices of verbs and adjectives, and actually state where you stand on that claim.
And we journalists would rise to that challenge and do some serious work.
Update: Wow. You really could not have engineered a debate less likely to generate any news whatsoever. ABC’s performance could not have been worse, from tape-delaying the debate and forbidding extended broadcasts before 5 a.m. Thursday to the ridiculous gotcha nonsense they indulged in for a full hour. Editor & Publisher‘s Greg Mitchell called it “perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.” Well, they made my point for me.