Tabloid Politics

Today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Tom Brokaw observed that we may be in a new political era in the U.S.— an age that might be characterized as representing “the end of dogma” as we have known it.

I liked Mr. Brokaw’s optimism since his remark was contextualized within the broader assertion that voters in both the GOP and the Democratic party may be less inclined to vote for a candidate merely because they embrace the traditional polarizing political rhetoric of the past thirty years.

As “The Buffalo Springfield” once sang: "Something’s happening here…”

Meanwhile it’s clear given the percentages for each candidate in recent primaries that no one has the affection of the majority in either party.

In turn we have a great opportunity to debate ideas.

And this is where my optimism breaks down. The political coverage in this country is so poor and the lurid ambulance chasing of the press is so rampant that the substantive differences between the candidates on everything from how to fix social security to what we ought to do to repair our international diplomatic and economic status remains woefully under reported.

And so we have moved away from dogma into something like disaffected chatter. Here’s what the various TV political talk shows have focused on over the past week:

Bill Clinton got red in the face while scolding a reporter in Las Vegas. He looked really angry and kind of old. Old Bill was looking uncool. That Clinton was talking about the failure of the press to report on the dirty tricks of local labor unions was of no consequence. Why should it matter that union members who wanted to vote for Hillary were being threatened by union bosses? That’s no story! Look how red Bill has gotten! And he’s shaking his finger! Remember the last time old Bill shook his finger? Isn’t it time for Bill to disappear? Who cares what he’s saying? Aren’t we tired of him? Yeah. That’s right. He was the most effective bi-partisan president in recent history but who cares? Look! He’s red as a lobster!

Barack Obama said something that’s historically accurate about Ronald Reagan, namely that he represented a period of genuine change in the country. Yes! That’s right! Barack Obama said something factual about President Reagan. But you’d think what he really said was: “Ronald Reagan came down to earth from outer space and I’m one of his pod people!” The scouring that poor Obama has taken for saying something absolutely benign is astonishing. And that’s the problem of course. Barack Obama is one of the most reasonable people to run for the presidency since Abe Lincoln. This requires the tabloid press to stretch the senator’s features out of shape. Lost in all this is the fact that Obama was talking about the fact that this election may be a different political moment for our nation and that a smart candidate should recognize that. God almighty! You’d never know what the poor man was saying. Newsroom! Newsroom! Hold the presses! Obama said “Reagan” out loud in front of a camera and he didn’t demonize him. Yep! That’s right! What a scandal! Let’s show the film clip over and over as if it’s the Zapruder film.

Notice any substance here? I didn’t think so.

Mitt Romney got angry at a reporter who confronted him about his assertion that he had no political lobbyists in his campaign. When the reporter said this wasn’t true, that one of Romney’s top advisors is a noted Washington lobbyist, Romney argued that his campaign manager isn’t a lobbyist “so there” Nah Nah Nah! Then the reporter was confronted by Romney’s chief campaign strategist who dressed him down for confronting “the candidate” and Lo and Behold! The coverage on MSNBC was about whether or not that reporter was actually wrong to have asked the question. I swear on my Little Orphan Annie decoder ring that this is true! And the talking heads argued back and forth about whether a reporter should ask a tough question like that and lost in all of this nonsensical palaver was the fact that Mitt Romney has a genuine aura of unreliability when it comes to certain facts. If the current reporting trends continue Romney doesn’t have much to worry about. I think he can count on the press to fixate on the dropped scraps of butcher’s paper. In short, you can say what you want nowadays so long as you look good doing it.

Obviously these are just a few recent examples of what I like to think of as the post-dogma tabloid trivialization of our political reporting.

Perhaps the most egregious thing I heard today on “Meet the Press” came from Peggy Noonan (who else?) who in a neat bit of sophistry argued that the sight of Bill Clinton fighting on the front lines for his wife’s candidacy is essentially an “anti-feminist”position. Apparently Ms. Noonan has forgotten all those solo campaign stops hosted by Nancy Reagan who did her level best to get angry for her Ronny whenever she could.

Is it possible that we’re in the post-dogma era but there’s no one left in the fourth estate to report on it?