Drudge Barks, TV News Bites

"YouTube Election" or same old sloppy speculation?

Thank you, Matt Drudge, for providing us all with a brief respite from what might have otherwise been yet another ho-hum August day of campaign reporting. Because who cares what candidates are saying about Iraq or Cuba or assault rifles when “OBAMA WIFE SLAMS HILLARY?” (as Drudge casually wondered aloud across the top of his web site yesterday morning). Cat fight!

Drudge linked his teaser to a Chicago Sun-Times column in which a line from a recent Michelle Obama stump speech—”…if you can’t run your own house, you can’t run the White House”—was referenced sans context along with the suggestion (Drudge bait!) by columnist Jennifer Hunter that it “could be interpreted as a swipe at Hillary Clinton.” Drudge linked. Bloggers dissected. And predictably, Drudge soon saw his all-caps question mirrored back at him from television screens tuned to network and cable news. Some examples:

“MRS. OBAMA ATTACK?” — CNN’s American Morning this morning

“FAMILY VALUES: Did Obama’s Wife Slam Clinton?” — NBC’s Today Show this morning

“MRS. OBAMA AIMS AT SEN. CLINTON?” and “MRS. OBAMA VS. SEN. CLINTON: Cheap shot or fair territory?” — Fox News’ Fox & Friends this morning

No matter that Mrs. Obama’s “if you can’t run your own house” line could also be “interpreted” in other, less “newsworthy” ways, particularly when read in context (she was talking, as she has before on the stump, about her own family’s efforts to balance work and family time). No matter that Barack Obama told reporters (when asked on a conference call yesterday morning) that his wife was not referring to Clinton. Once flagged by Drudge, the Sun-Times’ suggested “interpretation”—them’s fightin’ words!—was the one that ricocheted around the media echo chamber.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer noticed yesterday afternoon that Mrs. Obama’s words were “generating some commotion” and felt compelled to call two talking heads into The Situation Room to help him “read between the lines here.” Lucky for Blitzer, this sort of “commotion” plays right into the painfully uninformative cable news format of pitting a left-leaning talking head against a right-leaning talking head and treating viewers to an argument. And so “Democratic strategist” Donna Brazile told Blitzer that Michelle Obama was not taking a shot at Senator Clinton and “Republican strategist” John Feehey said that she was taking a shot—“no doubt about it.” And then the “commotion” was revisited by other CNN anchors thereafter (Lou Dobbs, Anderson Cooper, the folks on American Morning today).

NBC’s Today Show this morning dressed up the dustup and presented it as a cautionary tale (one we’ve surely all heard before) about YouTube’s effect on running for political office. (Isn’t it really, in this case, more about the Drudge Effect on campaign reporting?) This allowed Andrea Mitchell to grab viewers in the first hour of Today—the story apparently merited mention just thirteen minutes into the three-hour program—with talk of a “sexy political story” which by the end of her report became “a lesson in how quickly things can be misinterpreted online.” Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director, told Mitchell: “This is the YouTube Election for a reason. You can take a sound bite and cut it off and splash it on YouTube and suddenly create a new version of a story.” Or, as happened here, you can take a sound bite and suggest it has an inflammatory meaning and get your suggestion picked up by Drudge and suddenly create a new version of a story—which will then be picked up by NBC.

Unlike at NBC, Fox News folks made no attempts to conceal their excitement over the Girl Fight (as time wore on this morning, Fox News even dropped the question mark from their on-screen captions such that “MRS. OBAMA AIMS AT SEN. CLINTON?” became the more definitive, “THE CLAWS COME OUT” and “DARTS FLYING”):

Fox & Friends’ Alisyn Camerota: “We’re more than a year away from the election and the fangs are coming out… The wife of Barack Obama is taking a swipe at a fellow Democrat…Is this a thinly veiled jab, Mike, at Hillary Rodham Clinton and her past marital problems?”

Mike Gallagher (Republican strategist and radio host): “Boy, I hope so. This is fun. I’m on the sidelines watching this. Do you think we can talk Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton into doing maybe a cage match or mud wrestling competition? This is real fun. Rumor is Mrs. Obama is much more physically agile than Mrs. Clinton but Clinton has her in the strength department. If they start going doing this now — we are only in August of 2007 — imagine what August of 2008 will be like.”


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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.