Campaign Journalism: Merely Distracting or Truly Destructive?

Sarah Palin got to the top of the news cycle today with an attack on Barack Obama for “palling around” with terrorists. I mean, who can be bothered to try to explain the differences between the candidates’ domestic or foreign policies? Isn’t it so much more fun for journalists to have an endless discussion of whether the association with Ayers matters, whether they should be covering it, whether they should be discussing whether they should be covering it, etc.?

Jon Stewart calls it perfectly:

Everyone likes new and shiny. We’re bored. What’s great about that is [Democratic VP candidate Joe] Biden is an absolutely eccentric character. That’s how powerful Palin’s story is — it has cast the first African-American presidential nominee, the oldest [non-incumbent] presidential nominee, and a really wild cork vice presidential candidate completely out of the picture. The press is 6-year-olds playing soccer; nobody has a position, it’s just ”Where’s the ball? Where’s the ball? Sarah Palin has the ball!” [Mimes a mob running after her.] Because they can only cover one thing.

But even this media critic presumes that the real story here is the more interesting personalities of McCain, Biden, Obama–not the extraordinary policy differences between the Republican and Democratic nominees. No wonder the press was so scared by the civic journalism movement.

The financial crisis represents a “revenge of the real” on personality-driven reporting, with predictable consequences. The question now is whether this wake-up call for our personal finances can lead journalists to treat the campaign news as more than a high-stakes game of chicken, where outrageous statements become front-page stories simply because of the dangers they pose for their utterers and their objects. Consider this language from Daniel Koffler:

[W]e are embedded in a culture of wanton consumption for no other purpose than itself. The time we enjoy most consumer goods we purchase is breathtakingly short – and having degenerated into a nation of consumerist appetitive beasts, the American people are incomparably better equipped to blunder our way into a crisis that threatens our economic or political system than we are to solve one.

I would not apply that characterization to the many Americans who are just scraping to get by in places where health insurance, a decent job, and an adequate education are ever-receding dreams. But I do think it’s an accurate description of a media elite whose only value is higher ratings . . . and which, as a result of that obsession, is ready to regurgitate whatever pablum a desperate candidate comes up with in an effort to “otherize” her opponent. That type of reporting makes media outlets little more than marketing departments with a stenography division.

Hat Tip: Rod Dreher.

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