Every cloud, they say, has a silver lining. And our current cloud—or, more specifically, the massive, murky, and menacing haze that is yesterday’s plummet of the stock market—is, perhaps, no exception. From a media angle, anyway. Because that crisis has, among other things, served as a reminder—to the presidential candidates and, it seems, to the press that drive their media coverage—that, you know, This Country Has Real Problems That We Should Be Talking About.
On the one hand: Um, yeah. Of course we do. And it shouldn’t have taken a major financial disaster to remind us of that. But on the other hand: Hallelujah. At least now we’re actually talking about real issues. As Dan Balz wrote, with tentative optimism, in The Washington Post, “After all the uproar and chatter of the past two weeks, the campaign may be heading back to fundamentals.” The crisis, Balz predicted, quoting Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, “will force the discussion to a very serious discussion—not that Palin is frivolous—but I think now people want to know where McCain and Obama are going to take the country.”
Or, as The Huffington Post put it even more succinctly in a banner headline this morning: “HELLO ECONOMY, GOODBYE LIPSTICK.”
Well. One more time: Hallelujah. This is the moment when the clouds break, the heavens part, and your Higher Power of Choice descends from above to assure you that, from now until November 4, our campaign coverage will be focused on Real Issues. That no longer will we waste time talking about lipstick and/or pigs. That no longer will empty he-said-she-saids define our campaign-related conversations. That no longer will inanity and triviality and general distraction dominate our discourse.
Or something like that. One hesitates to be too hopeful at this point. The sanguine predictions of issue-oriented-ness, after all, are coming on the tails of a series of ridiculous distractions (lipstick! Sarah Palin’s hotness!) that, together, were not only a low point in the coverage of this exceedingly long presidential campaign, but that were also variously enabled and created by the media. Balz’s hope that “the campaign may be heading back to fundamentals” conveniently ignores the fact that Balz himself, and his colleagues in the press, are the ones who define the direction in which campaigns “head.” That’s kind of their job.
And yet, still, we hope along with Balz. We hope—perhaps naively, but we hope nonetheless—that the most recent news of the credit crisis will be a wake-up call, not only for citizens, and not only for the people asking to lead them, but for the media. That the press will ask tough questions of the candidates and keep their focus on real and detailed solutions for getting us through the storm. Even Chris Matthews, a pundit whose discipline, put kindly, hasn’t been the strongest when it comes to the temptations of campaign-related media bait, is promising to do his part. “As of today,” he declared on Hardball last night, “this is no longer an election about lipstick on pigs, misleading ads, or how many houses a candidate wins. This is serious.”
It is. Here’s hoping Matthews—and everyone else—continue to remember that.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.