A moment of wishful thinking, if you don’t mind. About a week ago CNN’s Soledad O’Brien had Romney spokesman/flack and ex-New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu on her show. Political junkies know that Sununu is not just a crusty old bastard, but a veteran deep DC-insider crusty old bastard, a guy who long ago came to understand how the mutual stroke fest of politics and media goes, what the rules are, and who to avoid for routinely breaking those rules.
The fascinating thing that happens in what should have been just another completely forgettable celebrity anchor-flack interaction was that O’Brien clearly decided ahead of time that not only was she going to go in armed with actual homework, but also crusty bastard or not, she was not going to put up with Sununu’s bullshit. Here’s the link to what happened.
For those of you too busy to watch … O’Brien, armed with various fact-checkers’ indictments of the Romney campaign for flagrantly “misleading” assertions about Medicare “cuts” in Obamacare, demands that Sununu acknowledge reality — those damned pesky facts — and explain how what is verifiably not true can be asserted as truth just because it is emitted as an official campaign position of Team Romney. Sununu doesn’t like this, accuses O’Brien of being in the tank for Obama — as by inference would everyone else who refuses to accept unreality as reality, and what’s false as what’s true.
But she doesn’t back down.
Sununu eventually departs, looking an awful lot like a gaseous hack, and probably was on the phone to CNN’s news chief and a couple of Time-Warner board members within the following hour, threatening, by God, to hold back an “exclusive” with Mittens or Paul Ryan in retribution for a network anchor so flagrantly violating the accepted rules of political theater. Since then O’Brien has played the same fact game with Our Boy, T-Paw, who at least had his usual sociopathic good sense to laugh and smile while accusing her of … being in the tank for the Democrats. Later she also had a fine moment questioning Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell about what exactly she means when she prattles on about “socialism”. (Spoiler alert: O’Donnell doesn’t know what she means.)
You may have heard that over the next nine weeks the two campaigns are going to drop something in excess of a billion and a half dollars of ad money into the television industry, mainly corporately-owned television stations in major media markets in the so-called “battleground states”. Viewers elsewhere, like us here in Minnesota, will get a taste — a nauseating one to be sure — of that action, but still, our local network affiliates will enjoy a very nice, very fat windfall of easy money from the theatrics of the election season.
The point is that it really is time for TV news to grow up, and it may be happening, in part because the internet and social media can roast a reporter’s reputation in a heartbeat if/when they get played for a chump — which is what they look like if they don’t come armed with homework and a touch of “confrontation”, instead of merely observing the hoary rules of the game. We all know the vibe: the chummy, excessively respectful/reverential celebrity “get” attitude where even the most flagrant deception/lying is tolerated as “just part of the shtick”. Did you catch the poor rube in Denver who accepted Mittens’ conditions for a … five-minute “exclusive” with her station?
Conversely, some like O’Brien, by remaining persistent and poised in the face of rhetorical turpitude and blustering accusations, very quickly build a reputation among colleagues and sectors of the cyber-universe for having gonads where so many others dare only to perform a limp eunuch flop.
If there’s a trend building, why now?
Well, for one very significant thing, this year’s Republican campaign(s) are so far over the line in terms of flagrant distortion — which they shamelessly repeat in the face of repeated repudiation — that the sheer damned outlandish bogus-ness of their charges becomes the story. This allows normally queasy reporters to easily substitute out the usual “he said – he said” in their interviews about Medicare “cuts”, or Obama stripping work requirements from welfare, not to mention the “legitimate/forcible rape” fiasco. Where that average corporate TV employee/reporter, under implicit orders to be “balanced”, is reluctant to wade anywhere close to where they might be accused of “taking sides” or being “confrontational” (God forbid!), it becomes a different context when the essence of an entire campaign strategy is an unflinching wall of deception and outright lies. At that point, demanding a direct answer to already heavily reiterated facts becomes a much less risky game. There’s cover. It’s OK, because, “Hey, everybody’s talking about it!”
Also, and here I concede a dense whiff of wishful imagining, I suspect that among the actual press corps, the buffoonery of the entire GOP election cycle to date, is having its effects.
Much as they have a journalistic responsibility to play “fair”, treating a candidate like Romney as though he has (detectable) serious beliefs, and pretending that guffaw-inducing caricatures like Todd Akin, or (today’s contender for the Gaffe Crown) Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith, or GOP executive committee member Pat Rogers who is still standing up for George Armstrong Custer, have anything like adult credibility is a whole series of bridges too far. More to the point, continuing to pretend otherwise, that these are mature, intelligent, sensible people is simply asking too much. When a guy presents himself with a fright wig of orange hair, a red rubber nose, a garish smile and size 52 shoes it’s fair game to treat him (or her) like a clown, or risk looking like one yourself.
That obviously is the ground-level press corps and their anchor brethren. It’s their faces hanging out. They’re the ones getting mocked on Jon Stewart and YouTube. I strongly suspect a whole other attitude (continues) to pervade the offices of their supervisors and executives. Those would be the people tallying up the campaign windfall and conveying an “understanding” to the minions, that “confrontational” isn’t something to pull on your best clients.