American elections are never pretty. From 1796 when Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affairs kept him out of our first contested election, to 2000 when Bush supporters in South Carolina publicized lies about John McCain’s family and mental stability, all manner of scurrilous accusations have been a part of our cultural heritage. The job of the media has always been—at least according to democratic theory—to elevate the quality of debate to ensure that the actual choices facing voters get a fair hearing. Alas, in the final days before the midterm elections, this view strikes one as unhappy utopian.
Complex and compelling questions face the nation regarding the continuing bloody grind in Iraq, funding for social security, the future of stem cell research, and on and on. Yet we are getting stories that focus on dirty instant messages, salacious fiction, Rush Limbaugh’s medical diagnoses, and John Kerry’s inability to keep his foot out of his mouth.
The most recent non-story to take over the press corps’ collective imagination is Sen. John Kerry’s remarks earlier this week while appearing on behalf of California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides. “You know education,” Kerry said, “if you make the most of it—you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart—you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
This poorly-delivered punch line to a tortured attempt at humor was the lame barb that launched a thousand silly stories from every news outlet from The New York Times to The Washington Post, USA Today, cable networks, and the nightly news.
This Wednesday’s New York Times gives one of the most egregious examples of reporters putting a non-election story before substantive issues. Reporters Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg led their long election piece with two paragraphs about the Kerry comments. About halfway down, they then devote a total of 12 full paragraphs to his comments and the conservative backlash, effectively breaking the real bit of news reporting in half.
But the Times was hardly the only culprit. According to a Media Matters study, on October 31, CNN aired reports about Kerry’s joke gone wrong on “CNN Newsroom,” “Your World Today,” and “The Situation Room,” all of which contained some sloppy reporting about the substance of Kerry’s comments.
The Kerry episode is just the latest in a long line of non-issue-driven campaign coverage that seems to make Drudge and Rush the cultural arbiters of what counts as news. Foreigners are left shaking their heads at the inanity of the process we call “democracy” that we profess to be exporting to them. And voters are left without much information to make intelligent, informed electoral choices.
Coverage of the Virginia Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat James Webb has been especially lacking. This is in part is due, it must be admitted, to the genuinely odd campaign being waged in the state. It all began back in August when close on the heels of a story by Ryan Lizza in The New Republic dealing with Allen’s alleged history of making racist remarks, the senator called a young man of Indian descent filming one of his campaign stops “macaca.” We all know the fallout from that one, and the way the press went wall-to-wall following the story.
The coverage of the race from then on has focused on Allen’s family history and college locker room antics; Webb’s decades-old remarks about women; and courtesy of The Drudge Report—which ABC’s Mark Halperin and The Washington Post’s John Harris call “the Walter Cronkite of its era”—sexual excerpts from a few of Webb’s novels.
Oh, and the “story” of Webb having written some fictionalized sex scenes in published novels? It was front-page news in The Washington Post. It apparently rejected the story when it was first peddled by the Allen campaign, but then found itself powerless to impose its own journalistic standards after the story was plugged on Drudge.
Another media darling of this campaign season has been Rush Limbaugh, with his disgraceful mocking of actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease. In a now infamous ad for Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, who supports stem-cell research, Fox shook visibly due to the side effects of his medication. This prompted Limbaugh to attack—flailing his arms and shaking his head in a sad attempt at parodying Fox’s involuntary movements—and accuse Fox of “acting” and purposely being off of his medication.
If you Google Limbaugh and Fox’s names together, you’ll get a who’s who of major news organizations weighing in on the issue of Limbaugh’s staggering bad taste and uninformed insensitivity. You’ll find NBC’s Matt Lauer, apparently on the basis of some sort of twisted mental telepathy, wondering aloud, “Didn’t Rush Limbaugh just say what a lot of people are privately thinking?” If you read many of these same stories on ABC, NPR, USA Today, and many more, you’ll learn that Limbaugh allegedly “apologized” for the lies and heartlessness that characterized his attack. Here is what Limbaugh said: “I stand by what I said [about Fox]. I take back none of what I said. I wouldn’t rephrase it any differently. It is what I believe. It is what I think. It is what I have found to be true.”
In these stories, you’ll find precious little relevant information about the actual issue of stem cell research, or the differences between the candidates in the Missouri Senate race. And this is where you find the connecting thread that ties all three of these stories together.
These scandals have almost completely obscured the real differences between Democratic and Republican candidates, just like when issues got stalled in the 2004 presidential election when the Swift Boat vets—and phony-vets—managed to steer the debate away from the current war in Iraq to what may or may not have happened on a river in Southeast Asia over three decades ago. We are all losers in this election.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books and 150 “Think Again” columns. His popular blog, “Altercation,” moved from MSNBC.com is can now be found at http://mediamatters.org/altercation/.