The same old story, same old act
Last week, Media Matters' Paul Waldman wrote:
Republicans claim Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Well, who cares if it's a lie? It's "out there," so reporters have no choice but to repeat it and repeat it until it becomes the essence of the public's view of the man, a vivid distillation of what all reporters dislike about him. Republicans say John Kerry "looks French"? Ha ha, what a witty barb! We'll make sure to mention it in story after story. John Edwards got an expensive haircut?
That certainly is worthy of extended discussion, rumination, and analysis, and once every ounce of blood is squeezed from the stone, we'll just keep it around to bash him over the head with, lest he begin to think for a moment that he can convince anyone he's anything but a fraud and a girly-boy.
The part about "extended discussion" is worth a bit more attention. Had a news organization or two reported the original GOP claim about Gore and the Internet (and -- dare we dream? -- pointed out that it was false), there wouldn't have been much wrong with that. The problem is that reporters and pundits kept repeating it over and over again for months and years. Even when they knew it was bunk.
Likewise, Politico reporter Ben Smith's original report about John Edwards' haircuts -- well, it wasn't exactly an important revelation, but had things ended there, or with a few follow-up mentions by other reporters, it wouldn't have been particularly complaint-worthy.
But of course, these things don't end there. (Well, sometimes they do. More on that in a bit.)
Instead, we've been treated to an endless stream of news reports about John Edwards' haircuts.
The Politico's search engine makes it all but impossible to get an accurate count of how often the haircut has appeared in articles and blog posts on the paper's website, but it seems safe to say the answer is in the dozens. Ben Smith alone has referenced it in at least five separate blog posts, including a June 1 post making clear that he's better suited to writing for Beavis and Butt-head than covering politics:
At the risk -- no, certainty -- of getting myself some further mockery and abuse, I'll admit that I got a haircut today in Park Slope, one outrageously priced by Quad City standards.
I asked the woman who cuts my hair, Kelly, what I'd get for an additional $353.
"The world's longest head massage," she said. "And product made out of magical unicorn spooge."
Politico columnist Roger Simon appears to have a clause in his contract requiring a minimum number of mentions of the haircut. Most memorably, Simon dedicated his May 2 column to the topic -- though he swore up and down that he didn't want to but was forced to do so because Richard King of Olympia, Washington, wrote a letter to USA Today. Sadly -- tragically -- I am not making this up.
If it were just Smith and Simon repeating this nonsense over and over, one might be tempted to assume that the two Politico colleagues are merely engaging in a contest to see which one can prove that their hiring was the bigger mistake.
But countless other reporters seem to think the public will forget about the haircut if they aren't reminded at regular intervals -- and that the Republic will crumble if voters don't have ready access to this information as they assess the candidates.
Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler, for example, has written at least four separate articles that mention Edwards' haircut. On July 12, she wrote: "In recent weeks, publicity about his personal wealth -- $400 haircuts, construction of a 28,000-square-foot house, hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary to speak about poverty and advise a hedge fund for the superrich -- has opened him to charges of hypocrisy and threatened to undermine his message." That was at least the fourth AP article that mentioned the haircut this month alone. The Washington Post has run 15 articles mentioning the haircut.
As journalist Greg Sargent pointed out this week, The New York Times' Leslie Wayne managed to work mention of the haircut into a report that Edwards thinks the tax code unfairly benefits hedge fund managers. If you don't immediately see the connection between a tax proposal and a haircut, don't feel too bad: Not everyone can write for the Paper of Record.
Those random mentions of the haircut in the midst of news reports really add up: a Nexis search for "John Edwards and haircut and $400" returns 894 results -- it may well be above 900 by the time you read this. Some of those results, like John Solomon's landmark piece of haircut journalism, are news stories devoted to nothing but the pressing topic of Edwards' hair. But many simply treat "$400 haircut" as though it is Edwards' middle name, or his prior profession -- a key part of his biography that must be included in every article. On June 1, for example, the wire service UPI began what was billed as an "analysis" of Edwards' energy plan with a reference to ... $400 haircuts. When The Washington Post profiled local barbershops on May 20, the article began by questioning the "propriety of John Edwards's two $400 Beverly Hills haircuts." When NBC chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski spoke May 1 before the Rhode Island Business Expo (in exchange for $30,000 from the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce), he talked about Iraq, about al Qaeda, about the Bush administration's response to the September 11 attacks -- and he told his audience that John Edwards is a "loser." Why? The haircut, of course.
Let's stop there for a minute.
Journalist Jim Miklaszewski took $30,000 from the Chamber of Commerce for a speaking appearance in which he criticized Edwards over the haircut.
One might assume that John Edwards' economic policies -- his focus on poverty and health care and the growing gap between rich and poor, and his solutions to these problems -- have some opposition down at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. And NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski took their money and criticized Edwards.
Meanwhile, his colleague Tim Russert, on the June 2 edition of his CNBC show, asserted that the haircut is "a kind of issue that connects with people, they remember it, they get it." Chuck Todd agreed, saying that he saw a focus group of people who were "marginally paying attention to the race [but] they all knew the haircut."
Maybe, just maybe, they all know about it because reporters mention it at every available opportunity. Maybe, just maybe, some of them "get it" because they heard NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, in exchange for $30,000 from business interests, criticize Edwards over the haircut.
Remember the hyperventilation over MSNBC's deeply flawed list of journalists who made political contributions? The fact that some sports copy editors and a handful of political reporters -- a total of 143 journalists out of more than 100,000 -- made contributions to candidates or causes was supposed to reveal the "liberal bias" of the media. Well, this is a working journalist taking tens of thousands of dollars from an interest group, then trashing a candidate whose policies the group presumably opposes. Shouldn't that be worth a segment or two on Reliable Sources?
At this point, we can imagine those who don't much care for John Edwards wondering why we've spent so much time criticizing media focus on his hair. Just as those who don't care for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Al Gore or may be unconcerned about media misinformation about them.
But this constant media repetition of "damaging" anecdotes isn't unique to John Edwards. Not even close.
When you do a Nexis search for "AL GORE and INVENTED THE INTERNET" ... well, Nexis throws its hands up in despair. It gives up, declaring, "This search has been interrupted because it will return more than 3,000 results." Media coverage of his presidential campaign (and his post-campaign activities) included the (bogus but purportedly illustrative) anecdote at every available opportunity, no matter how thin the pretext. His decision to wear earth tones (like every other human save, perhaps, Dieter from "Sprockets") was subject to similar treatment. As was John Kerry's statement that he had voted for one version of the Iraq supplemental and against a different version. And Howard Dean's Iowa "scream."
These examples all have a few things in common:
- All are, to some degree, inaccurate, unfair, or of minimal significance.
- All were (and still are) endlessly repeated by media at every available opportunity, often as though the anecdotes are deeply illustrative of some personal or political failing.
- All of the targets in question were progressives.
That last one is important. Conservative candidates just haven't seen the media endlessly repeat their (real or perceived; significant or not) missteps the way they have been repeated about progressives.
For example, Edwards' haircuts (and the size of his house, and his wealth in general) are constantly invoked in news reports about his economic policies. And always as a negative -- his wealth is portrayed as inconsistent with his policies (hypocritical, even) or undermining his message. When have you seen an article about Edwards that casually notes that the fact that he supports policies that are inconsistent with his narrow personal financial interests gives him greater credibility to talk about poverty? Or that it gives him a decided advantage over wealthy conservatives like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson who favor tax policies that would line their own pockets at the expense of those less fortunate? You probably have never seen such an article, though those assertions would be at least as valid as the portrayal of hypocrisy.
If the leading Republican candidates were held to the same standard, every news report that mentions Romney or McCain or Thompson or Giuliani wanting to make the Bush tax cuts permanent would include a sentence like this: "Romney's support of tax policies that overwhelmingly benefit the superrich -- like Mitt Romney -- may remind middle class Americans that he is not one of them."
You've probably never seen an article like that. But if the media's approach to John Edwards were applied to the conservative candidates, you'd see it every day. (Instead, Romney's incredible wealth and large house, when mentioned, is portrayed as a "valuable asset" to his campaign.)
News reports about Rudy Giuliani making security issues a centerpiece of his campaign would note his decision to put New York's emergency response center in the World Trade Center complex -- one of the few places in America that had recently been the target of a terrorist attacks. Not once or twice -- hundreds of times. The absurdity of Giuliani's choice of Bernard Kerik to run the NYPD -- and, later, his lobbying of President Bush to put Kerik in charge of Homeland Security -- would be constantly invoked by journalists as something that undermines his security credentials and judgment. Instead, he is regularly declared "America's Mayor" and the "Hero of 9-11."
If journalists constantly repeated long-stale but allegedly illustrative anecdotes about conservatives the way they do about progressives, news reports about President Bush's commutation of the prison sentence of one of his staffers would have been accompanied by snide paragraphs noting that he didn't display such compassion when he mocked pleas for mercy from a woman whose execution he refused to stop. (Actually, had Bush been treated the way Gore was during the 2000 campaign, his mockery would have been mentioned in countless articles that quoted Bush describing himself as a "compassionate conservative.")
But President Bush and conservatives aren't subject to that treatment by the media. The New York Times was one of the few news organizations to mention Karla Faye Tucker in a report about Scooter Libby's pardon. Incredibly, the newspaper didn't mention Bush's mockery of Tucker. Instead, the paper reported, "In his memoir, Mr. Bush wrote about agonizing over the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who in 1998 became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. [...] Mr. Bush described feeling "like a huge piece of concrete was crushing me" as he waited with aides for Ms. Tucker's execution. It was, he said, 'the longest 20 minutes of my tenure as governor.' "
Maybe you're thinking that tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, cronies put in charge of security, and mocking pleas for mercy when a condemned woman are just too serious for the media to repeat often. That the haircut story and earth tones and the Dean scream get repeated so often by the media because of their absurdity, because they are funny -- or at least fun. In other words, that the fact that Romney's wealth isn't invoked as often as Edwards' not because of a double standard, but because of the absurdity of a $400 haircut.
While running for president, John Kerry ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese. The sane response to that fact is, of course, "who cares?" The media response was to mock Kerry for ordering the "wrong" cheese. Supposedly, it reinforced his "elitist" image. Kerry's cheesesteak order continues to draw media attention years later.
During that same campaign, President Bush told Pennsylvania voters "I like my cheesesteak 'Whiz with,' " which The New York Times dutifully reprinted, spelling out for readers the contrast Bush sought to draw: "Mr. Kerry made the mistake of ordering a cheese steak last August and requesting Swiss cheese -- when the choices included Cheez Whiz, American and provolone -- for which he was widely lampooned."
But Bush was apparently lying. A less credulous reporter than those employed by the Times -- Kathleen Carey of the Delaware County Daily Times -- did some investigative reporting and found that Bush actually orders his cheesesteaks not with Cheez Whiz, but with American cheese.
Did the media tell the story of Bush's lie about cheese -- about cheese! -- over and over again? Were we constantly told how it reinforced his image as -- well, as a liar? No. Of course not. The lie was thoroughly ignored by nearly every news organization in America. (ABC's Jake Tapper included a video clip of Bush claiming "I like my cheesesteak Whiz with" in a segment last year. No mention that Bush was lying.)
So: John Kerry commits the utterly insignificant act of ordering a sandwich with Swiss cheese. The media pounce, declaring it an example of his supposed elitism and mocking him for years. George W. Bush, during the same campaign, lies about the cheese he prefers on his sandwich in order to pander to voters. The media not only don't mention the lie, they don't portray it as an illustrative anecdote that reveals his dishonesty or undermines his carefully crafted "authentic" image. Instead, The New York Times plays up the contrast between Bush's purported preference and Kerry's "mistake."
It is difficult to imagine anything more absurd than lying about your preferred cheese. Yet that absurdity did not lead the news media to endlessly repeat this illustrative anecdote -- or, in most cases, to mention it even once.
The point isn't that the media never report damaging information about conservatives -- that is obviously not true. It's that the media endlessly repeat the same negative anecdotes about progressives over and over again, and do not do the same to conservatives. We're told, again and again, that John Edwards' haircuts contradict his policy proposals. That Al Gore claimed to invent the Internet. That John Kerry said he voted for one version of a bill but not another. That Howard Dean screamed.
What do we hear over and over again about John McCain? That he's a Maverick War Hero. About Rudy Giuliani? Sure, he's been the subject of some critical news coverage on occasion. But what do the media repeat over and over and over again? He's America's Mayor; the Hero of 9-11.
Maybe if someone sent Jim Miklaszewski a check for $30,000 ...