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Political Animal

It's The Stupid, Stupid

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/7/2008

Can this season's news coverage get any dumber?

Remember that in just about every newsroom in America there are people called "editors." These "editors" make decisions about what you see, read, and hear. And the decisions these people are making--and almost exclusively at the highest levels of their respective forms of media (radio, television, and newspaper)--have been extraordinarily shallow.

So Jeremiah Wright is a buffoon. So what? If we're going to tar people by association, at this point wouldn't it be better to start with anyone who has walked out of Dick Cheney's office over the last seven years--except for the fact, of course, that according to Cheney, he belongs to no known branch of the U.S. government, and thus we aren't allowed to know who those people are. But I guarantee you that, aside from the people who listened to Wright's sermons, the preacher hasn't tortured anyone, has ruined no one's energy policy, has defied no subpoenas, and has told no one to fuck off on the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, we get nonstop coverage of this man for two solid weeks from major television, radio, and newspapers. And yet the worst of the lot, television, when confronted with the fact that they were complicit in disseminating Pentagon propaganda by using retired generals as paid shills for the Iraq war effort, has less to say about it than Bill O'Reilly on the difference between a loofah and a falafel.

Part of the problem is that modern news editors hate "policy," because "policy isn't news." But in times like these, it isn't hard to make a case that, yes, policy is news--but today's media is too vapid and too hard up for rapidly vanishing eyeballs to care. Four months in a row of job losses on the edge of recession calls for some sort of policy change (and the president is doing the Charleston trying to avoid saying the R-word). Gas prices are skyrocketing toward the $4/gallon mark, and two of the three presidential candidates are saying that cutting the gas tax--in effect, giving the money to the oil companies--is a great idea. This is a policy discussion, but if you think you'll hear Mr. Gotcha, NBC's Tim Russert, or ADD-man himself, Chris Matthews, give 15 minutes to a substantive explanation and discussion of the problem on network television, then I've got a collapsed bridge in Minnesota to sell you.

This is the time of year when national political coverage of the Democratic looks like a bunch of kids in an elementary school running from one part of the playground to another any time someone yells "FIGHT!" Nobody cares how it got where it is; all they want to know is who's going to take the next swing.

In the meantime, John McCain coasts along on his "I Love Everybody 2008" tour, following the George W. Bush playbook of having lots of pictures taken of him with black people who would never vote for him in the first place, and whose concerns he would forget as soon as he takes the oath of office. It's the 2000 election all over again, and the campaign press is playing its part to perfection.

Has anybody mentioned that when McCain released his tax forms (after clamoring at the Dems to release theirs), he didn't release those of his wife? We all know how much the Clintons made in the last eight years--The Washington Post made PDF files out of all of them and ran them all across the top of its web page for two days, so anyone who wanted to could download and examine them at his or her leisure. But McCain's career has always been tied to his wife's fortune; as the heir to one of the largest Budweiser distributors in the country, Cindy McCain's money has helped propel her husband everywhere his ambitions took him. Literally--he gets to fly around on her company's private jet as opposed to a rented campaign plane. Is this "fair and balanced" coverage? If you ask John Kerry about how his wife got treated four years ago, I don't think he would say that it is.

Sixteen years ago, James Carville coined the phrase the Clinton campaign would ride to victory: "It's the economy, stupid." The point was to cut through all the vapid culture and personality bullshit that the media throws at a candidate in order to focus on what elections really are all about. Republicans love this stuff, because it allows them to avoid the tough questions about what their policies actually do (create deficits, hamstring regulation, create tax giveaways to the wealthy), as opposed to what they say they will do (grow the economy, shrink the government, expand "freedom").

Now it's the stupid that needs to be cut through. It's cheaper and easier to talk about the ravings of some South Side Chicago preacher than it is to discuss the economic reasons why lifting the gas tax for a month would only cause consumers to see pennies while the oil companies rake in billions. Stupid sells. Policy doesn't.

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