Two hopeful sparks were visible from the campaign trail last week that suggested there is growing support for the idea of pushing the press off the stage and letting voters get on with the important business of picking the next president. For years, the press played a central and welcome role in that decision-making. But over the past 12 months, the increasingly self-absorbed Beltway press corps has shown that it's no longer up to the job, that it cannot be trusted to oversee it.
The first thanks-but-no-thanks signal to the press came when the campaigns of both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain quickly rejected an offer made by ABC News to exclusively air the first of the proposed town hall forums that the candidates agreed, in principle, to have during the general-election campaign. ABC News, as part of its pitch, offered to have Diane Sawyer act as moderator.
But both campaigns insisted that any citizen-based town hall event had to be open to all television outlets, as well as be seen on the Internet, and not be sponsored or organized by a single news organization. More important, the campaigns stressed that the town hall meeting would not be moderated by the press.
The other refreshing forum being proposed for the general election is a Lincoln/Douglas-style event, which would also let the candidates address voters unfiltered and keep journalists on the sidelines, where they belong.
I cheered that bipartisan rejection of ABC's offer because, for me, at least, the entire appeal of the citizens-first town hall format is that the television networks would have virtually no role and that their millionaire moderators (like Sawyer) would be nowhere in sight. What was the point of letting ABC News brand a town hall forum as its own by putting its host in the chair, building space-age sets as it did during the winter debate sessions, selling lots of advertising time off the event, and then turning it into prime-time programming? The town hall forums aren't about the networks, they're about the larger electoral process.
By smartly swatting down ABC's proposal, the message seemed clear: The campaigns want to get the media off the stage. Journalists are not the collective third candidate in this election, although at times it's obvious they consider themselves to be just as important as political leaders. That runaway narcissism has severely damaged the craft, and the campaigns have wisely decided to give the press a time-out.
A sharp reader at the New York Times blog The Caucus nicely captured the sentiment:
Too often the media has trivialized our national dialogue with innuendo, scandal and gossip. It has also reduced complex social and economic issues down to trivial sound bites that conform to the technical constrictions of their medium.
I suggest that these 'town hall meetings' be moderated by the leading political writers and activists working today. Union leaders, business leaders, economists and professional diplomats could also add value to the discussion. Someone like Ms. Sawyer can only add glitz and surface distraction to the issues of the day, reducing our political dialogue to mere entertainment.
The other media spark that flew last week came from a much less likely source than the Obama and McCain camps, but I thought it was equally telling and, in a way, just as persuasive. It came when Hollywood star Gina Gershon appeared on the morning chat show Live with Regis and Kelly, where she denied the rumors published in a jaw-droppingly insidious article in Vanity Fair. The piece suggested, as part of a never-ending laundry list of smears, that former President Bill Clinton had had an affair with the actress. (Days before her television appearance, Gershon's lawyer formally demanded a retraction and correction from VF; the magazine refused and stood by its nonexistent sourcing for the gossip.)
On TV, Gershon, speaking as a celebrity, denied the rumor and scolded the magazine for its ethics-free approach to journalism. ("Vanity Fair never even did fact-checking.") Then, speaking more as a concerned citizen, Gershon expressed total shock at how the political press -- as opposed to the TMZ, Hollywood gossip-chasers she was accustomed to -- maintained no standards. "You know what's disgusting to me?" she asked. "These journalists, these irresponsible journalists, they are not accountable for anything. There's no accountability. And I don't know. I just think it's wrong."
And finally, she urged voters to ignore the campaign's media filter and seek out answers on their own, directly from the candidates:
GERSHON: [I]t's so important just to watch the candidates' debates with your own eyes and make your own decision. You know, and I think -- you know, I've been guilty of being lazy. I read a publication that I think is reputable or I see a TV show, and you can't do it anymore. You really -- I know for -- I'm going to watch the debates myself. Watch these guys talk, you know, for themselves and then decide for yourself, because you just can't really believe anything you read anymore, which is so scary.
Together, the two rejections, one from the world of serious politics and one from the spillover region of entertainment gossip, were hitting the same point: Less press is better for voters who are trying to learn about presidential candidates.
How's that for the ultimate insult?
The campaign press has become so completely wrapped up in tactics and personality and trivia and absurdities that more and more of its users -- its consumers -- are quietly telling journalists to just stop, to unplug their keyboards and leave voters alone. That this election is simply too important to be hijacked by members of the media, who appear to be so caught up in intramural navel-gazing that they've lost all connection with everyday voters.
And trust me, that connection has been completely severed. As Columbia Journalism Review noted last week, "The ever-growing armies of pundits deployed by cable outlets on Big Nights -- the debates, Super Tuesday, etc. -- yammer on about What It All Means, though nary a one goes out knocking on the doors of the folks who might tell them."
Specifically, the message from both of the campaigns, the blog reader, and the actress was the same regarding presidential forums and debates: We need to see the candidates unfiltered, without high-paid journalists prancing around onstage, in mad pursuit of gotcha moments or spinning incidental debate encounters furiously afterward, and generally mucking everything up.
In other words, campaign journalism is dead. Maybe town hall forums and old-school debate formats, with a diminished role for the media, will save us this campaign cycle.
Editors, producers, reporters, and pundits have only themselves to blame as the campaigns move to shove the press to the sidelines -- a move that will likely be cheered by voters. Because, again, if we look at the primary season as the media's audition for the general election, the media failed miserably.
For instance, did you notice the excuse the media used, at least during the Democratic primaries, that because the candidates were so similar in terms of policy positions, that of course the coverage revolved more around personality? So what's the media's excuse now? McCain and Obama couldn't be further apart on the major issues facing this country (war, the economy, the Supreme Court), yet the press remains conveniently entrenched in its personality-and-tactics-only mode.
That's why we see The Washington Post's Dan Balz going on and on about McCain and Obama and the "content of their characters"; because for journalists, campaigns are all about character sketches. Whereas voters, I assume, tend to see the contests in more concrete terms, like which candidate can help turn the economy around and which one has a plan to head off $6-a-gallon gas.
For the chattering class though, elections are about anything but substance.
So it was no surprise that in April and May, the media spent more time talking about when Sen. Hillary Clinton might quit the race than they did addressing how the candidates running for president might actually handle looming crises such as Iraq and a sick economy. That, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's analysis of political coverage in newspapers, on Internet sites, and on television news. (Press vet Tom Brokaw called all the incessant discussion about Clinton's exit a product of "too much time and too little imagination.")
And that's why the campaigns and voters want the media to move aside, to step down from their unelected role as election arbitrators. The media are no longer enlightening and informing. Now they're just taking up space and producing pieces of inanity.
Examples? You can pretty much toss a dart at the board and hit a stinker. But just for the sake of argument, look at this pointless -- yet breathless -- New York Times dispatch about the private meeting Obama and Clinton recently had at the end of the primary season. Read it and try not to cringe:
Several early reports suggested that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton were holding the secret session at her home on Whitehaven Street, which sits in the shadow of the vice president's residence in Northwest Washington. In the end, aides said, the meeting did not take place there, a development that for hours injected a cloak-and-dagger-like element into the drama and set off a mad scramble for reporters to find the secret location.
For a time, the search took place live on cable television, unfolding like a Washington spy thriller, with the two leading characters sneaking around with the help of decoys and diversions.
Was it taking place at the home of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who supported Mrs. Clinton but is also friendly to Mr. Obama? (If so, where does she live? Property records indicated an address on Nebraska Avenue, which turned up nothing.)
Obviously, the location of the Obama and Clinton meeting was completely, and without question, irrelevant. Nonetheless, the press corps whipped itself into a frenzy and chased the non-story with abandon -- a pointless media exercise that the Times then chronicled in detail. Adding to the dark comedy, The Daily Howler noted how CNN's Candy Crowley read all kinds of deep significance into the location of the Obama/Clinton sit-down, even though Crowley reported the wrong location.
As the general election picks up momentum, more and more people seem to be sending the political press the same simple message: Thanks, but no thanks.
Can you blame them?