The arrival of my year-end issue of Newsweek in December was accompanied by a palpable sense of dread. Featuring Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) on the cover with the headline, "The Race is On," the issue landed with a thud, like an unwanted fruitcake amidst the holiday season. How else to respond to a 2008 campaign preview package published 98 weeks before Election Day and nearly 400 days before a single registered Democrat would vote in a primary? That, plus the fact the 2008 drumbeat was sounding just six weeks after the all-consuming midterm elections had been completed.
Am I the only one who thinks it's madness to turn White House campaigns into 22-month press events? Or is it sacrosanct along the New York-Washington, D.C., media corridor, where pontificating about politics can pay very well, to suggest that there is such a thing as too much mainstream media election coverage?
The press truly has embraced the notion of the nonstop campaign and I think has done so for increasingly selfish reasons. 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 meanbig business; relatively inexpensive content that can be endlessly rehashed. In other words, they're good for the bottom line.
The never-ending analysis for 2008, though, has already morphed into a deafening background noise. And the press' often shallow performance last week does not bode well for the long term.
We have an industry of media political pros who have surprisingly little to say (i.e., Clinton has more experience, but Obama represents a fresh face), yet insist on saying (or writing) it over and over and over. Raise your hand if you felt like you learned something truly insightful from the tidal wave of press coverage last week about Obama, Clinton, or the upcoming Democratic primary season.
And make no mistake, the media's flood-the-zone reaction to Obama and Clinton announcing they were forming presidential exploratory committees was unprecedented in American campaign journalism. Indeed, anybody who needs further proof that the Beltway press corps has surrendered to the cult of personality, last week's display of Clinton-Obama mania should suffice.
It's true that the press does not control the campaign calendar, and that more and more states are moving up their primary dates so they'll have more influence on the nominating process. But the press is clearly still driving the over-excited coverage and hyping the expanded campaign season. (CNN is already advertising its April debates from New Hampshire.) Meaning yes, the exploratory committee declarations are coming earlier. But what has not changed is the fact that no ballots are cast until early 2008. So why is the press treating the Obama and Clinton announcements as being so wildly important? (They're not even official candidates yet; that news cycle comes later.)
It's obvious that Clinton and Obama's stars burn brighter than some previous candidates such as Bill Bradley or Paul Tsongas. And I'll admit the spectacle of a former first lady running for president herself is extraordinary, as well as historic. But at this stage, Clinton's announcement hardly passes as unexpected. In fact, it was completely perfunctory.
And if Obama had made an audacious last-minute entry into the campaign one year from now, reminiscent of Robert Kennedy's belated decision to join the 1968 race (he jumped in after the New Hampshire primary) then, yes, there would be cause for the type of hyperventilating coverage that has been on display -- the urgent tone regarding endorsements and fundraising and the shifting political landscape. But forming an exploratory committee twelve months before the first primary and nearly 700 days before the general election -- that's Big News?
Apparently so. In the 36 hours surrounding Obama's move last week, "Obama" was mentioned more than 620 times on cable and network television newscasts, as well as National Public Radio, according to TVEyes.com. In the roughly 36 hours following Clinton's Saturday announcement, she grabbed more than 1,000 television and NPR mentions. Last week, Obama and Clinton combined to garner nearly 3,500 on-air mentions, which averages out to more than 20 references every hour for 168 straight hours, or an entire week. (I'm convinced MSNBC talker Chris Matthews goes to bed at night thinking about Clinton, mumbles her name in his sleep, and wakes up with Clinton on the brain.)
Think back to 1999 when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush unveiled his presidential exploratory committee with a showy presentation in Austin. The next day The New York Times published a modest 900-word story on Page 14. The Washington Post was a bit more generous, giving the Bush story Page 1 treatment, with a 965-word dispatch.
Note that in 1991, the press barely even registered the fact that Bill Clinton had formed an exploratory committee. The New York Times published a 300-word wire item from the Associated Press, while the Post gave the news just 600 words, inside on Page 4.
By comparison, last week the two papers, swept up in Clinton-Obama mania, rewrote their rules. The New York Times played the Obama exploratory announcement prominently above the fold on Page 1, while the Post published no fewer than four articles, totaling 3,500 words, about the Illinois senator's White House plans. For Clinton, the Times also gave her A1, above-the-fold placement on Sunday, as did The Washington Post. In all, the Post printed six Clinton-related articles that day, totaling more than 5,300 words.
Too much of a bad thing
Some might suggest there's no such thing as too much political coverage because it's good for democracy -- it educates the citizenry. In theory, yes, but not the kind of coverage I fear we're going to get. And certainly not the kind of coverage news consumers were exposed to in recent presidential pushes, when the press concocted phony narratives about the candidates (i.e. Bush in 2000 was the more likeable, and that's why Americans wanted to share a beer with him).
In fact, instead of engaging the public, I fear the media's nonstop droning turns people off. There's little evidence that it's news consumer hunger that's driving the current orgy of political pontification. (As Mystery Pollster recently noted online, not even voters in Iowa, home of the first Democratic caucus vote, appear to be engaged in the campaign yet.) I mean, what are citizens supposed to do with this avalanche of chatter? Basically, Obama's running, and Clinton's running, and in 12 or 13 or 14 months from now, depending on where they live, voters might be able to cast a vote for one of them. (Or for another candidate.) How many voters, over the next 12 moths, really need a daily update about that? The answer, of course, is almost none. But the press, taking insider-dom to new extremes, seems more intent on feeding its own incestuous appetites.
More importantly, the media's over-emphasis on the candidates this early in the process distracts journalists from covering more pressing issues, while also warping their news perspective. This past weekend provided a perfect example of the troubling trend. On Saturday, Clinton announced she was forming a presidential exploratory committee. That same day, 25 American soldiers were killed in Iraq, marking the deadliest day for U.S. forces in nearly two years. Which story was more newsworthy? For lots of major American newspapers, the answer was easy: politics.
The Chicago Tribune, for instance, made the Clinton story Page 1 news in the Sunday paper but not the bloody news about troops in Iraq, which was reported inside the paper. So did The Hartford Courant, The Oakland Tribune, Portland Oregonian, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star Tribune all played the Clinton story above the troop story on their front pages. (The Washington Post published the stories side by side on its front page.)
The other real downside to today's early saturation coverage is that journalists, anxious to juice the narrative, are too often tempted to simply manufacture conflicts where none exist. For instance, there's been a constant buzz about the emerging rivalry between Clinton and Obama, despite the fact there has not been a single cross word publicly spoken between them or anyone directly associated with them. Still, journalists, desperate to advance the storyline, persist. Note this head-scratching bit of minutia disguised as analysis from a December 8 Washington Post article, headlined, "For Now, an Unofficial Rivalry; Possible Clinton-Obama Presidential Clash Has Senate Abuzz":
In the fishbowl of the Senate, interactions between Clinton and Obama are frequent and closely scrutinized. During a routine vote yesterday morning, Obama and Clinton brushed past each other on the Senate floor. Obama winked and touched Clinton on her elbow. Without pausing, she kept walking.
Meanwhile, last week, a lot of reporters simply made up the story that Clinton canceled a Capitol Hill press conference she was scheduled to give upon the return from her fact-finding trip to Iraq because it fell on the same day Obama made his White House announcement. The details though, were clear: Clinton postponed her press conference the night before, prior to Obama's announcement, because a congressional colleague of Clinton who also made the trip to Iraq had fallen ill. Yet reporters such a Dana Milbank at The Washington Post, pretended not to understand the facts in order to mock the Clinton campaign for "stumbling" and "getting defensive" over its postponed press conference.
Time.com's political blog also played the same bogus Clinton press conference game: The Clinton camp was "spinning" the facts of the canceled event even though the facts were completely accurate. (Time.com even slipped in a snarky Whitewater reference, because it's Clinton. Get it?)
In a post last week on The New York Times' political blog, The Caucus, Anne E. Kornbut (who this week got her first byline as a staff reporter for The Washington Post) reported, "Brushing past reporters in the Senate, Mrs. Clinton -- conspicuously talking into her cell phone; whether there was anyone on the other end of the line, or not, could not be confirmed." Yes, Kornblut, based on nothing but a snide hunch, suggested Clinton was faking a phone conversation.
The Beltway press is extending the campaign into a prolonged silly season so news consumers have to suffer through nonsense like that? It hardly seems fair.