On the same Sunday morning that a former Democratic presidential candidate’s spouse ripped into the press for failing the democracy that depends on it, a Democratic presidential candidate blew the opportunity to rip into a prime example of that failure.
“For the last month, news media attention was focused on Pennsylvania and its Democratic primary,” Elizabeth Edwards wrote yesterday in a tough New York Times op-ed headlined, “Bowling 1, Health Care 0.” Given the gargantuan effort, what did we learn?”
Well, the rancor of the campaign was covered. The amount of money spent was covered. But in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country this political season, the information about the candidates’ priorities, policies and principles – information that voters will need to choose the next president – too often did not make the cut….
Why? Here’s my guess: The vigorous press that was deemed an essential part of democracy at our country’s inception is now consigned to smaller venues, to the Internet and, in the mainstream media, to occasional articles. I am not suggesting that every journalist for a mainstream media outlet is neglecting his or her duties to the public. And I know that serious newspapers and magazines run analytical articles, and public television broadcasts longer, more probing segments.
But I am saying that every analysis that is shortened, every corner that is cut, moves us further away from the truth until what is left is the Cliffs Notes of the news, or what I call strobe-light journalism, in which the outlines are accurate enough but we cannot really see the whole picture….
Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden’s health care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess, you know Barack Obama’s bowling score….We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap….
What’s more, the news media cut candidates like Joe Biden out of the process even before they got started….
Who is responsible for the veil of silence over Senator Biden? Or Senator Dodd? Or Gov. Tom Vilsack? [Edwards did not mention Dennis Kucinich.] Or Senator Sam Brownback on the Republican side?
The decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate….
News is different from other programming on television or other content in print. It is essential to an informed electorate. And an informed electorate is essential to freedom itself. But as long as corporations to which news gathering is not the primary source of income or expertise get to decide what information about the candidates “sells,” we are not functioning as well as we could if we had the engaged, skeptical press we deserve….
If voters want a vibrant, vigorous press, apparently we will have to demand it. Not by screaming out our windows as in the movie “Network” but by talking calmly, repeatedly, constantly in the ears of those in whom we have entrusted this enormous responsibility. Do your job, so we can – as voters – do ours.”
Two days earlier, on Friday, Mark Silva, a Chicago Tribune reporter, wrote that “FOX News Sunday host Chris Wallace will sit with the senator from Illinois for an interview airing Sunday, officially stopping the ‘Obama Watch’ clock that FOX News Sunday started running on March 16, tracking the time that had lapsed since Obama first accepted Wallace’s invitation to appear as a guest: 730 days, 13 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds. Last Sunday, the clock counted 765 days, 13 hours, 54 min, 47 seconds.
The expectations of some kind of confrontation generated by Obama’s acceptance were revved up by an unidentified senior adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama who said, “He is going on their Sunday show to take Fox on,” adding, as Greg Sargent put it on “Talking Points Memo,” that “Obama knew full well that Fox has been at the forefront of spreading ‘the most specious of rumors.’”
Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering whether Obama, even if more temperately, would take on Wallace and Fox much as Bill Clinton had done in September 2006. On that occasion, the former president accused the host of having promised to discuss Clinton’s climate-change initiative, only to ask him instead why he hadn’t done more to “put bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business.”
“So you did Fox’s bidding on this show,” Clinton told Wallace. “You did your nice little conservative hit job on me,” he said. “I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of?”
“Keep in mind,” Sargent wrote, that Obama’s adviser had predicted a knuckle-rapping of Fox “specifically to mollify critics who worried that Obama’s decision to appear…would help legitimize the network and hence hurt Dems overall. There’s no ambiguity here to speak of: The adviser was telling these critics not to worry, that the reason Obama was going on was to ‘take Fox on.’
“And this just didn’t happen in any meaningful sense.” Sargent continued. “When Wallace brought up [The Rev. Jeremiah] Wright and the flag-pin, for instance, Obama didn’t point out that these bogus stories have been pushed relentlessly by Fox or that the network has pushed the Obama-is-a-Muslim lies. Again: Obama was not obliged to take on the network. But either way, the bottom line is that he didn’t do it. Partly because of this, the interview – which was a solid performance by Obama – was also a victory for Fox.” [Click here for the transcript.]
It was a possible victory for Obama, too. In deciding not to deliver what his senior adviser had promised, he likely assured that Rupert Murdoch’s guys will invite him back, thus giving him repeated exposure to voters he might not otherwise reach. For certain, though, there was no victory in this episode for the “vibrant, vigorous press” envisioned almost simultaneously by Elizabeth Edwards.