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Handicapping

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/31/2007

It's not news that the media are in giddy cahoots with politicians in exacerbating the "permanent campaign," blitzing Americans with nonstop coverage of upcoming elections. The results from last November's midterm contests were just barely certified when exhaustive speculation began about the 2008 presidential race, in part because there's no Republican heir to the nomination (Dick Cheney, defying the usual course of a sitting vice president vying for the top job, isn't running) and the emergence of Barack Obama's challenge to once-presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Reporters and columnists feel obliged to preface their stories with phrases like "It's absurdly early to talk about front-runners in the Iowa caucuses, but . . . ," a disclaimer that fools no one. Time's Feb. 5 cover headline was "Only 648 days until the election!," and inside was a full package about the prospects of the presidential candidates. Newsweek's current issue features three columnists (Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, and Anna Quindlen) nattering about 2008. One assumes the vast majority of readers skim this material with only mild interest.

That's the reason that I can't agree with Eric Boehlert's quite reasonable Media Matters essay posted online on Jan. 22. Boehlert, an articulate left-wing critic whose work is often found on Salon.com, is disgusted by his "selfish" colleagues' "madness" of subjecting readers to minute deconstructions of presidential exploratory committees, fundraising, polls, and press conferences a year before anyone will actually vote in a primary or caucus. He writes:

    For political scribes, presidential campaigns used to be the sports car their parents let them take out for a spin once every four years to show off. Now it's become a case of incessant cruising, with endless preening and posing. Specifically, White House campaigns can be career-making seasons, when high-profile promotions, book deals, TV punditry contracts, and teaching positions can be pocketed. For news media companies, presidential campaigns mean big business; relatively inexpensive content that can be endlessly rehashed. In other words, they're good for the bottom line.

There's no reason to doubt Boehlert's sincerity, but I think he's missing the larger picture. First, media companies that are satisfied with their "bottom lines" these days are few and far between. Second, when he complains that "news consumers have to suffer through [permanent campaign] nonsense," he's forgetting that no one is forced to read or watch horse-race analysis so far in advance of an actual election.

In fact, though politics is an increasingly popular form of entertainment, the majority of Americans aren't tuned in, at least to the extent that self-aggrandizing Beltway pundits believe they are. (That's not to say people aren't concerned or passionate about the government and its leaders, and often have strong opinions, it's just that for most it's too soon to become engaged in the debate.) I happen to enjoy all the speculation, but that's a personal choice, just as one of my neighbors religiously takes in every bit of media excess about the college and professional basketball seasons. And while it's true that, for example, John Kerry's underwhelming announcement that he won't seek the Democratic nomination was treated as breaking news, it's a safe bet that more citizens were curious about the Oscar nominations.

Besides, in today's bleak economic climate for the media industry, most daily newspapers don't clog their shrinking news hole with tangential political stories, partly because they no longer can afford to staff a Washington bureau. Instead, the upcoming trend, as papers like the Boston Globe shutter all their foreign offices, is a retreat to very local reporting, the kind that can't be found on 100 different web sites.

The Sun's management, caught in a financial grinder by its owner Tribune Co., appears to have decided to follow this path, and rely on other outlets for international and national coverage while devoting its shrinking resources to stories of exclusive interest to Marylanders. One example recently was Rob Hiaasen's very long, and very good, Jan. 21 profile of former Anne Arundel county executive James Lighthizer. At one time an ambitious political star, Lighthizer lost one of his sons to suicide in 1993 and then another last September due to diabetic complications while on a camping trip. Lighthizer, understandably forever altered by the tragedies in his personal life, has abandoned politics and now, according to Hiaasen, works on "saving Civil War battlefields."

Coupled with the justifiably heralded investigative series by Fred Schulte and June Arney on arcane ground rents in Baltimore, a project that had enormous local impact, Hiaasen's recent story shows that The Sun doesn't necessarily have to be competitive with one-time peers like The Washington Post to attract readers.

Maybe it's too late for a decreasing demand for print news, but it's probably the only chance for economic survival, and editorial excellence, that The Sun has in its arsenal. I wrote about this topic in late December, hoping that a local consortium will be able to buy The Sun from Tribune once that troubled company's shareholders decide what to do with their properties.

Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair's media columnist, suggested in the February issue that failing newspapers might soon be transformed into retro, niche products that could remain profitable by doing more with less. That's an imaginative and intriguing theory, but the days are growing short for a paradigm shift of this magnitude.

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