When Phil Gramm’s comment—that we’re in only a “mental recession”, and that America is a “nation of whiners”—first became public yesterday morning, some on the left wondered whether reporters would pick up on the remarks with anything like the enthusiasm with which they’ve seized on several recent Democratic missteps.
“You’d hope that the MSM would pause a moment from their talk about the phony Obama/Jackson controversy to notice this,” offered Salon’s Ed Kilgore. And Talking Points Memo approvingly posted this message from a reader: “So, will we see/hear weeks and weeks of prattling, analyzing, psychobabble, etc. about how badly Gramm/McCain do not understand the good people of this country? … I know. I’m delusional to even ask the question. Sigh.”
It’s hard to blame these writers for expecting the media to downplay Whiner-Gate. John McCain’s characterization of Social Security’s funding mechanism as “a disgrace” got only a fraction of the pickup it deserved. Contrast that with Wesley Clark’s accurate observation that getting shot down doesn’t qualify one to be president—which touched off days of round-the-clock coverage—and it seems fair to conclude that the media’s criteria for what constitutes a “gaffe” are badly out of whack.
Which is why it’s worth pointing out that, despite the left’s doubts, Gramm’s comments have hardly flown below the mainstream media’s radar. Just over twenty-four hours after his unfortunate words first appeared in The Washington Times, a quick search reveals that they’ve been noted in the following places, among many others:
- Stand-alone stories by The New York Times (for good measure, the lead photo on the paper’s home page this morning showed McCain and Gramm standing next to each other) , The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Politico, and the Associated Press
- A lengthy blog post in the Los Angeles Times
- A Web column by influential Newsweek writer Howard Fineman, who called Gramm’s comments “bone-headed” and “so asinine as to make Jesse Jackson
sound like Plato.”
- A long column in NBC’s “First Read”, which opened by asking: “Did Phil Gramm just lose his surrogate privileges?”
Indeed, the McCain campaign was so worried about the media fallout that, by yesterday afternoon, it had sent the candidate to announce, in an attempt at humor, that Gramm might be under consideration for the position of ambassador to Belarus.
This all seems appropriate. The Huffington Post reported in January that, at a meeting with the Wall Street Journaleditorial board, McCain “admitted he ‘doesn’t really understand economics’ and then pointed to his adviser and former Senate colleague, Phil Gramm - whom he had brought with him to the meeting - as the expert he turns to on the subject.” So when Gramm pooh-poohs the economic anxieties of ordinary Americans, it certainly raises about how a President McCain would approach the problem.
Still, in the face of the skepticism from some on the left about whether the media would respond, the early volume of coverage is worth noting. What it suggests is that the mysterious formula used by the guardians of our public discourse to judge which public comments deserve endless coverage and which don’t is less about which ones hurt Democrats rather than Republicans, and more about which ones simply sound personal and mean-spirited on first reading or viewing, whatever their actual validity.
That’s the common denominator between Gramm’s “whiners” remark, Wesley Clark’s “I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president,” and Obama’s “Bitter-Gate” gaffe about rural voters, all of which were given serious play by the media. And that essential quality was missing from McCain’s labeling of Social Security’s funding mechanism as a “disgrace.” After all, how personal can you sound when you’re talking about a funding mechanism?
That this is an utterly arbitrary and stupid criterion for evaluating which events deserve coverage doesn’t undercut its explanatory power. Sadly.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.