Saturday, January 12, 2008

Reader of the Pack

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Ah, memories. Remember the Clinton Juggernaut? Hillary Clinton was unstoppable. She had all this money. She was going to roll across the primary landscape like the Mongols across a steppe, sweeping all rivals aside.

At least that's what the press thought, way back then. And by "way back then," I mean six weeks ago.

Then, some pundits were predicting her exit from the race, or at least a major retooling and restructuring of her campaign. She was "vulnerable." She was "floundering." And all she did was lose the Iowa caucuses.

But wait! What's that? Hillary wins New Hampshire! Now it's Obama who's the one in trouble. And Edwards.

Argh. Two primaries and I'm already sick of the whole thing. And I'm usually a political junkie.

See, the thing is, a lot of the very media savants who predicted Hillary's imminent demise were the very same people acting as if Obama, Edwards, Richardson and -- wait a minute, don't tell me, I'll remember it in a second -- oh yeah, Kucinich, might as well not even show up.

And then, when she wins another primary, the same people are all yammering about the "Comeback Kid." These people switch positions faster and with even less shame than Mitt Romney, and I didn't even think that was possible.

It's powerfully reminiscent of the same stage in the 2004 presidential campaign. Before Iowa, Howard Dean was the juggernaut. He was unstoppable. He was raising funds like a preacher at a revival meeting. And then he lost Iowa, he went a little over the top in trying to rally his troops, resulting in the famous "Dean Scream," and the next thing you know, John Kerry was the Anointed One in the eyes of the same press who'd been calling Dean a lock for the nomination a couple of weeks before.

So what can we learn from this? Well, one thing we can learn is that no one knows anything, at least in the early stages of the campaign. In the seemingly endless run-up to primary season, and basically up until Super Tuesday, you should view any talking head or ink-stained wretch talking about "front runners" and "juggernauts" with the same wariness you'd show to a greasy guy in a bad comb-over and a cigar sticking out of his mouth, standing by the betting window at the track and whispering to you he's got a "sure thing, buddy, a sure thing."

Maybe it's just because I'm getting old and crotchety, but the press coverage of this primary campaign has caused me to use bad language, throw things at the TV, and grind my teeth to a previously unheard-of degree.

I mean, is it just me or does the press seem even more obsessed with irrelevant trivia this year than ever before? Why isn't Obama wearing an American flag pin? Is Giuliani actually taking cell phone calls from his wife during speeches? How much did John Edwards pay for a haircut? Should Mike Huckabee have done a "Merry Christmas" ad? Did Hillary tip her waitress?

And now, the latest brouhaha over whether Hillary cried on camera when speaking to an audience in New Hampshire, and what did it mean and whether it was real or faked and dear God, will these people for once think about something important? Frankly, from what I've seen, to call the American campaign press a pack of blithering idiots would be a legally actionable slander on the blithering idiot community.

Back in the '70s, writer Timothy Crouse, in his groundbreaking book "The Boys on the Bus," coined the term "pack journalism" to describe the phenomenon where members of the press, jammed together in close proximity day after day, start thinking alike, writing alike, and basically being afraid to break out and do any real digging or, you know, reporting. He recounted stories of editors calling reporters in the field and asking, "Are you sure about this story? (Insert name of big paper) doesn't have this."

Eventually, what happens is that certain themes develop that become the conventional wisdom: Obama's likeable. Hillary isn't. Gore was stiff and boring, except when he was claiming to have invented the Internet (a claim which, it bears repeating, Gore never actually made). McCain's a hothead, etc., etc. The problem is, "conventional" wisdom rarely is. Wisdom, that is.

Now, however, "pack journalism" is combined with an even more dangerous factor: the insatiable hunger of the 24-hour news networks. With all that time to fill, they have to talk about something. And, unfortunately, since talking about policy is, like, boring and stuff, what they seize on is the political equivalent of celebrity gossip.

Before too much longer, the only difference between CNN and E! is going to be that CNN shows more old white guys.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why I Hate the Press

Walter Shapiro at

But there remains, at least in my mind, something elusive about Obama's political appeal. The crowds are consistently good in Iowa, as they are (mostly) for Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. The revamped stump speech -- which was unveiled Thursday in Des Moines and which I have also heard in Mount Pleasant (Saturday) and now Perry -- is rich in inspiration and light on policy prescriptions....To someone schooled in traditional politics, Obama's rhetoric does seem at times vague.

E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post:

At one campaign stop last week, as Hillary Clinton droned on learnedly about health care, family and medical leave, and global warming, a colleague in the press section leaned over to dismiss her for offering nothing but "a laundry list of wonkery."