Notes From The Pig Sty

In which we all get dirty

From the people who brought you SnubGate and TurbanGate comes a new dark comedy, now playing on a television, newspaper page, and computer screen near you:

His insurgent campaign won him the nomination for the presidency of the United States. He said he wanted to fix the economy. He said he wanted to fix health care. He said he wanted to end the war in Iraq. He roused crowds with his lofty talk of change. He said he was well on his way to taking that change to Washington. Until, one day, he called the opposition a pig.

LipstickOnAPigGate. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Mostly you’ll cry.


Yeah. By now, you’ve heard the story. Barack Obama, last night, described the policies of “change”—about the economy, about healthcare, about reform in general—that John McCain and Sarah Palin (who—have you heard?—is a woman) want to enact in Washington. “That’s not change,” Obama said. “That’s just calling the same thing something different. But, you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

Per the script: Obama mentioned Palin and a metaphorical pig in the same speech. Obama is, therefore, sexist. Insert your favorite pig/boar/pork/Miss Piggy reference here.

The whole LipstickOnAPigGate script is exciting, to be sure, a political plot full of suspense and twists and turns. (And full of pigs, which are always crowd pleasers! Babe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, rolled into one at last!) But, in that, it also follows a narrative arc that is as frustrating as it is utterly predictable.

Take the money quote from the script, courtesy of Reuters, a line that doubles as, perhaps, the most ridiculous sentence I’ve had the misfortune to read since the start of 2008’s presidential campaigns:

Obama’s campaign said it was clear he was not referring to Palin, a little-known Alaska governor before she became McCain’s running mate, and was not calling her a pig.

And was not calling her a pig. This is pathetic in every sense—pathetic, because it’s pitiable; pathetic, because it’s regrettable; pathetic, because it’s packed with a pathos that is as extreme as it is unnecessary. And it’s so not merely because it involves a campaign for the presidency of the United States being forced to clarify that its candidate was not, in fact, making a porcine allusion in reference to a (female) member of the opposition. It’s also pathetic because the clarification itself should have been utterly unnecessary: Obama has used the lipstick-on-a-pig line several times before. Palin herself made a lipstick-on-hockey-moms quip in her game-changing RNC speech last week. McCain himself has used the lipstick-on-a-pig line previously…in reference to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare policies.

But wait! you may say. Hillary Clinton’s a Lady! Wouldn’t that, in fairness, make McCain sexist, too?

No, it wouldn’t. Because the Clinton campaign didn’t play the Umbrage Card the way the McCain campaign did yesterday. They didn’t make an issue of the laughably innocent phrase, confident that the media, unable to resist so juicy a story—the punny headlines practically write themselves!—would bite on it and make it, you know, A Thing. They didn’t; the McCain campaign did. So it’s Obama who gets the “he demeans women” narrative in the media.

And he gets it in spite of the widespread recognition among the media that the lipstick line was—clearly—not intended as a slur on Palin. “This is the press just absolutely playing into the McCain campaign’s crocodile tears,” Mark Halperin said on CNN last night. “And this is a victory for the McCain campaign, in the sense that, every day, they can make this a pig fight in the mud. It’s good for them, because it’s reducing Barack Obama’s message even more.”

Chuck Todd, appearing on today’s Morning Joe, agreed:

I think the McCain campaign is laughing—laughing their butts off this morning that any of us have taken the bait on this lipstick thing. I mean, this is a joke. It is laughable, and you know, look, our mutual friend, [MSNBC executive producer] Chris Licht, and I were having an off-air debate about whether we … should be airing the Web ad, because it’s such a faux controversy. It’s made up out of whole cloth by the McCain campaign. Hey, look, this is what they’re good at. They’re good at winning these news cycles, and … they have beaten the Obama campaign on these little—what I call—sort of shiny metal object days, right? They’re able to say, “Oh, look!, shiny metal object.”

But perhaps we have, here, a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. As Liz noted, as of noon today—only four hours after Todd made that statement—MSNBC had made thirty-five references to LipstickOnAPigGate. The scuffle had been referenced twenty-eight times on CNN and forty-eight times on Fox. It’s made the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. As happens so often when it comes to The Coverage of Inanity in Presidential Campaigns, there seems to be a convenient disconnect between Id and Superego when it comes to the minds of the media.

It was, appropriately enough, Jane Swift who spearheaded the he-called-Palin-a-pig accusations on behalf of the McCain campaign. “Senator Obama uttered what I can only describe to be disgusting comments, comparing our vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to a pig,” the former Massachusetts governor—and newly designated chair of the “Palin Truth Squad”—declared in a conference call with reporters.

The McCain campaign followed that up with a Web ad, released today, that reiterates the Obama-called-Palin-a-Pig mythology and says of Obama: “Ready to lead? No. Ready to smear? Yes.”

The Obama campaign is, of course, fighting back. “What their campaign has done this morning is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country,” Obama said. “They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad because they know that it’s catnip for the news media.”

But what Obama himself says matters little at this point. Audiences—also known as voters—have gotten too accustomed to campaigns’ back-and-forth, to all the vitriolic he-said-she-saids, to focus their attention on the details of the accusations the campaigns hurl at each other. What they recognize, rather, is the press’s framing of those accusations, the media’s treatment of the controversies. And the fact that LipstickOnAPigGate is a controversy—indeed, the fact that it’s a narrative in the first place—is the fault of the media. (Where does it end? Obama says he doesn’t play hockey, and Palin’s called herself a hockey mom, and moms are women, therefore Obama’s sexist?) The media, in allowing themselves to be so easily hijacked by campaign spin—we’ll repeat whatever accusations you fling at your opponent, no matter how ridiculous—are not only implying their own irrelevance in this whole campaign. They’re fostering it.

I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig, that Bernard Shaw line goes. You get dirty, and, besides, the pig likes it. One can’t help but wonder: Who’s really being wrestled with here? The McCain campaign may have thrown mud in this case, but it’s the media, after all, who are doing his dirty work.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.