Chris Matthews was steamed.
As John McCain's manufactured "lipstick on a pig" story was taking flight last week, Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, kicked off the hour by teeing up the story. In a note to viewers that telegraphed his disdain for the lipstick controversy, he announced that during the show, he'd share his own thoughts "about how, with a troubled economy, crumbling bridges, rail and roads, a failing educational system, a war that is now going on for five years, and an uncertain American economic future, we're sitting here talking about lipstick."
Later, he complained the story was "an insult to the intelligence of our democracy."
Did you hear the media are mad? According to Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post, the press is angry at McCain for his patently untrue lipstick attack ("It's false. It's ridiculous"), and they're seething over how Sarah Palin keeps telling her demonstrably false Bridge to Nowhere tale even after members of the media pointed out her stump-speech applause line was a lie. (A "whopper.")
During the past week, virtually every major news outlet has produced welcomed, hard-edged fact-checking pieces about how the Republican ticket goes far beyond bending the truth and just plain snaps it out on the campaign trail.
In the past, that kind of truth-telling would have embarrassed campaigns and likely caused a dramatic change in the rhetoric. But what do McCain and Palin do in response? They pretty much ignore the press and its critiques.
Writing on The New Republic's website, Eve Fairbanks spelled out the conundrum, capturing the dumbfounded realization that spread through the press corps. It's like that scene in a movie when the superhero realizes his unique power (for the press, it's collective indignation) has suddenly been rendered useless:
Reporters demolished the claim that the Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, and yet the McCain campaign insolently still uses it. Writers dismantled the McCain campaign's untrue assertion that Barack Obama compared Sarah Palin to a pig yesterday, and yet the campaign put out an audacious ad featuring the ridiculous allegation, presumably on the assumption that Real Americans don't care what the elite press says anyway.
Instead of recoiling, the Republican ticket seems to have adopted a post-press approach to campaigning in which the candidates simply don't care what the press does or says about their honesty. More to the point, the candidates don't think it will matter on Election Day.
They may be right. And that's the media's fault. They've reported their way right into the margins. Submerged in trivia and tactics for the past 18 months, the press, I think, has damaged its ability -- its authority -- to referee the campaign.
Proof? Let's go back to the pissed-off Matthews for a perfect example. Raise your hand if, in the past six months, you've seen an entire episode of Hardball devoted to discussing our "troubled economy," the sad state of America's transportation infrastructure, the failings of our educational system, the never-ending war in Iraq, or the "uncertain American economic future."
Matthews claimed those are the key issues that face our country and, by implication, are what are important to this campaign. Yet Matthews hosts a cable news program that pretty much refuses to discuss those issues.
Remember, Matthews is part of the same Beltway press crowd that told news consumers Hillary Clinton's laugh was extremely important and needed to be analyzed for clues about her true character, that John Edwards' haircuts raised serious doubts about the man's candidacy, and that Barack Obama's bowling score spelled trouble on the campaign trail.
And it wasn't that long ago that the campaign press stressed how important it was that John Kerry windsurfed and that Al Gore spent time as a politician's kid growing up in a Washington, D.C., hotel. These were issues of paramount concern for the media.
I think when journalists wallow in that nonsense for so long and pretend it's newsworthy and important, the coverage of a truly important story (e.g. what the media have now identified as the Republican candidate for president trying to lie his way into the White House) comes across as just another trivial pursuit. For news consumers, it comes across as just more forced cable chatter because there's no seriousness left in the entire endeavor.
Again, just look at the absurdity of Matthews' performance. He basically devoted an entire program to addressing the question of whether McCain's camp really thought Obama was referring to Palin with his lipstick comment. The entire program. And then within minutes, Matthews announced that the story insulted everyone's intelligence.
Obvious question: So why spend an hour talking about it?
And that was just Matthews' program. The entire charade was repeated everywhere across the Beltway landscape.
Fact: Between Monday and Friday of last week, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired more mentions of "lipstick" than they did "Fannie Mae." You know Fannie Mae, that's one of the two distressed mortgage giants (along with Freddie Mac) that the federal government had to take over last week in order to fend off insolvency, an unprecedented move that was fraught with dire economic repercussions.
But yes, the lipstick story was more newsworthy on cable television last week. It wasn't even close. Lipstick was mentioned more than 350 times, while Fannie Mae was mentioned approximately 230 times, according to TVEyes.com.
Were some of those lipstick mentions on TV made while criticizing McCain's empty ploy? Absolutely. (See NBC's Chuck Todd.) But that still didn't excuse the media's Pavlovian response to the McCain whistle, of embracing and spreading the phony story in the first place. The proper response would have been to essentially ignore the so-called story and keep moving. Or to note that McCain's camp tried to float the phony lipstick story. But turning the soggy affair into the day's top news event was an embarrassment.
The media's failure to do so wasn't surprising. The press throughout this race has walked away from any semblance of traditional standards, yet journalists seemed oblivious to the long-term implications of their chronic embrace of fluff.
Why their embrace? Because that's what the media feel most comfortable with; that's what they're good at. (They think.) They're good at speculating for weeks on end about who might be selected as a candidate's running mate and what that hypothetical matchup would mean on Election Day. They're good at ruminating about polls. They're good at trying to read politicians' minds.
But now we're seeing the dire consequences -- when the press wants to inform voters about outrageous campaign conduct (like the Bridge to Nowhere, McCain's untrue claim that Obama plans to raise "your" taxes, or even in the margins the lipstick fiasco), the press no longer wields the same authority, in part because the political press has consciously folded its work into the larger entertainment culture.
Honestly, do voters really (I mean really) see that big of a difference between reading about Sarah Palin in People and reading about her in Newsweek, whose 2008 campaign coverage often has been driven by an open, breathless embrace of celebrity and entertainment? I'm not so sure voters do.
As for actual issues, the media p acked those away for safe keeping sometime right around the New Hampshire primary. Ever since, it's been T&T; trivia and tactics have ruled the print pages and airwaves.
Don't get me wrong. I welcome the media's current fact-checking blitz. It's desperately needed in light of the fact that "the McCain campaign keeps making assertions that anyone with an Internet connection can disprove in a minute, and repeating these assertions over and over again," as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman helpfully pointed out.
The press should maintain its fact-checking vigilance while avoiding future lipstick non-stories. Shedding the obsession with trivia and tactics in favor of substantive reporting would go a long way toward restoring the public's trust and would help the media's smart fact-checking efforts stand out and be noticed more.
But right now, I think the press' frustration and anger, as Kurtz documented, reflects the disturbing realization among reporters and pundits that their protests have had little effect on McCain and Palin or the larger campaign. (Did you notice the Bridge to Nowhere tale returned to Palin's stump speech?)
Rather than being cowed by the press' mini-sermons about truth-telling, McCain and Palin are practically laughing at the press.
Can you blame them? Can you blame any sane observer for dismissing so much of today's campaign coverage as nothing more than a farce? How could the McCain camp watch the Matthews episode and not laugh out loud at the sheer clownishness?
To recap: The MSNBC host, along with the rest of the press corps, seemed to be in heated agreement that the lipstick story was a worthless joke. And then they covered it ad nauseam. Why would the McCain camp look at that performance and think that political journalism was a serious business? Why would the McCain camp look at that sad display and care what the press said or thought about anything (including fact-checking) as long as the press dutifully spread around McCain's campaign smears?
The campaign press has become a joke, and McCain and Palin are laughing at it.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers could not have been clearer speaking to Politico: "We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it."
How did we enter this new media era in which general-election candidates McCain and Palin have made it quite clear they don't even care (at least not yet) if the press calls them liars, which used to be the ultimate scarlet letter for any candidate?
It's not only because the press corps no longer enjoys enough respect and credibility -- enough authority -- to pull the righteous indignation drill effectively. It's also because the press hasn't extracted a price from McCain or Palin for broadcasting lies.
Sure, reporters and pundits gnash their teeth and express deep disappointment at the direction of the GOP campaign. But openly ridiculing the GOP candidates as pols who can't be trusted to tell the truth, or portraying them as delusional? Not a chance. That's the type of mockery the press reserves exclusively for Democrats accused of bending the truth.
Writing at his blog on the Atlantic website, James Fallows noted the similarities between Palin's Bridge to Nowhere fantasy and Hillary Clinton's snipers-in-Bosnia fa ntasy from the primary season. He wrote:
In Senator Clinton's case, the more often she repeated the story, the more relentlessly the press said the story was not true. All parts of the press did this: right, left, middle. They didn't say that there was a "controversy" about her story. They said it was false. And eventually she bowed to the inevitable and stopped telling the story any more.
Fallows actually soft-peddled the press' take on the Bosnia story. Because rather than simply "relentlessly" announcing the story was not true, lots of press players used the tall tale to emphasize that Clinton was craaaaazy. Hysterical. Irrational. Unhinged.
Perhaps that was the media's right. (Candidates roll out whoppers at their own peril.) But if the press thought Clinton's fabrication was telling about her character, why don't journalists make the same assumption about Palin, who keeps repeating her fabricated tale?
And good God, imagine if Al Gore had ever uncorked a whopper like that while campaigning in 2000. As The Daily Howler wrote, "If Gore had ever told stories like these, he would have been hung from the nearest tree."
Either that, or Matthews' head would have exploded. Because let's not forget that during the 2000 presidential campaign, the press couldn't stop writing, investigating, and carrying on about Al Gore's alleged exaggerations regarding old movies, canoe trips, and classroom seating inside a Sarasota school.
Pundits argued that Gore's embellishments all but disqualified him from serving as president. Hooked on the story, reporters s pent an extraordinary amount of time checking in with experts -- psychoanalysts, academics, political scientists -- trying desperately to figure out what all the exaggerations meant.
The Washington Post, one month before the 2000 election, ran a Page One piece exploring Gore's exaggerations -- "casual lying" the newspaper called it -- in which two reporters combed through decades of public statements. I've searched the Washington Post archives and cannot find a single reference to Sarah Palin's "casual lying."
Instead, the press coverage suggests that McCain and Palin's lying simply represents a tactic -- a campaign maneuver -- and that the fabrications reveal nothing of their character.
No wonder they're laughing at the press.