One of the weirdest things about this presidential race so far has been the campaigns’ increased ability to generate media firestorms over impolitic comments made by advisers or supporters of their opponents—often culminating with the resignation of the offender. On the Democratic side, this dynamic has led to the departures of three prominent figures associated with the campaigns: Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire co-chair Bill Shaheen, who pointed out, probably rightly, that Republicans would make an issue of Obama’s admitted drug use in a general election; Geraldine Ferraro, another Clinton backer, who suggested that Obama’s race has been a political asset; and Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, who called Clinton “a monster.”
There’s little doubt that this “phony controversy” phenomenon is harmful to the political process. In the case of a policy adviser like Power—a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an internationally respected advocate for the use of American power to stop genocide—her departure from the stage leaves the Obama campaign without one of the people best equipped to make the public case for the candidate’s foreign policy ideas. That aside, these phony controversies take up media oxygen that might more usefully be spent on covering stuff that actually matters. However clumsy, or even borderline offensive, the comments at issue, it seems clear that we’d all be better served if they were simply ignored.
That’s not likely to happen any time soon, of course. But in order to fully understand why a development that virtually everyone agrees is harmful persists so stubbornly, it’s worth looking more closely at the roles of both the campaigns and the media—particularly cable news—in creating these phony controversies.
Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about by a “phony controversy.” When a longtime spiritual mentor and friend of a candidate makes a string of clearly ignorant, hateful, and false remarks, as in the Jeremiah Wright controversy, that’s a legitimate topic for media attention. Same goes for when a candidate seeks, and receives, the backing of a figure with a history of making similarly offensive comments, as happened when John McCain was endorsed by the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-gay pastor John Hagee.
But when a campaign surrogate chooses his or her words poorly, or in the heat of a hard-fought race levels an ad hominem attack, as in the cases of Shaheen, Ferraro, and Power, the ensuing controversy is, to put it bluntly, fake. Our political discourse is more than strong enough to withstand these lapses in taste (all mild, by historical and international standards) without the speaker being temporarily hounded from public life. As everyone who follows them closely understands, these controversies exist only because they’re opportunities for the rival campaign to gain an advantage.
It’s worth noticing, too, that this seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. A quick search turned up not a single example from a previous major presidential campaign of an adviser or supporter being forced to resign for saying something deemed inappropriate (let us know if we’re forgetting one!).
Why didn’t this used to happen? Not, presumably, because no campaign surrogate ever said anything stupid before late 2007. And not because the members of the political press were necessarily any more high-minded back before CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were competing for every eyeball. But they had less airtime to fill, and so could exercise more judgment about what qualified as news and what didn’t. Today, with the media desperate for any new development, however trivial, that can fuel coverage—and especially for those that can be framed as controversies, which always generate ratings—those restraints have been wiped out. (Consider Wolf Blitzer’s constant, infuriating “Happening Now” refrain, designed to fool CNN viewers into thinking that important developments are perpetually in the offing—and lampooned here.
It’s also worth looking closely at what’s in it for the campaigns. If everyone knows these controversies are fake, what‘s the upside to stoking them? The answer, of course, is that not everyone does know. Many less savvy news consumers still operate on the understandable assumption, conscious or not, that the news media acts as a kind of editor of the world, meaning that if something’s on the news, it matters. So when some voters, not paying close attention to the campaign, see that the TV news is covering the story of a supporter of candidate X saying something that others have deemed racist, or sexist, or otherwise beyond the pale, they understandably assume the story matters, whether or not it really does. And their opinion of candidate X may well suffer.
It’s clear that if the press chose not to cover these phony controversies, they wouldn’t exist. Sure, the campaigns could still try to stoke these conflicts on their Web sites or in public speeches, and perhaps in some cases this would still be enough to do some damage. But without the mainstream media playing along, the significance of these instances of manufactured outrage would be much diminished.
So, here’s a question for mainstream news outlets, and particularly cable news producers, to consider the next time a campaign complains about supposedly unacceptable comments from the other side: Is there an underlying issue that’s newsworthy and demands coverage, when considered in a context removed from the endless back-and-forth of the campaigns’ struggle to gain an advantage? And if the honest answer is no (and we’d argue that it was in the cases of Shaheen, Ferraro, and Power), why not ignore the complaint? Just don’t cover it, no matter how juicy a “controversy” it seems to offer. See what happens.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.