So That’s What It’s All About!

Presidential campaigns (and coverage), explained

The Gloves! They’re coming off! Tonight!

Isn’t it fun to say? (It must be, all the TV types are saying it this week - on CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC.) Isn’t it fun to say— even if we don’t really believe it (and even if it’s a phrase that is so overused/abused in election coverage that it lacks any punch or meaning?) No matter.

No more Mr. Nice Obama (or, “No More Obambi”)! He says he’s going to take a “forceful stand” against Hillary Clinton, maybe even at tonight’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia! Think of the post-debate jab, counter-jab story to be written for tomorrow (on MSNBC, David Gregory got in the mood this morning by opening his debate report— pre-port?— with the theme from Rocky and, of course, a hopeful-sounding observation that tonight the “gloves could come off.”)

But wait. Could the press (gasp!) be going overboard with their excited anticipation of a gloves-off Obama v. Clinton heavyweight bout? That’s what the Washington D.C.-based editors of two glossy weekly magazines seem to be saying.

On Time’s Swampland blog, the magazine’s D.C. bureau chief, Jay Carney, confesses that the media (“they/we”) have “no question” “inflated the Obama-on-the-attack storyline.”

Carney then mounts this defense: “But let’s not forget that the inflation began with Obama himself, who sat down for a New York Times interview in order, in part if not in whole, to tell the world that he was now going to take the fight more directly to his colleague from New York. That’s the kind of discussion of strategy and process that is bound to drive reporters to their keyboards…”

That’s also the kind of discussion of strategy and process that, according to a new PEJ study, is the focus of the majority of campaign stories to date—“the political and tactical” or that which affects the candidates/campaigns rather than that which affects the public. No matter that, per another recent study (from Pew), the public says they want more of the latter (“77 percent continue to say that they would like to see more coverage of the candidates’ positions on issues.”)

So Carney is saying, in essence, “He started it! Doesn’t he know how the press (over)reacts to these things?” Or, in his own words: “Surely Obama and his team anticipated this reaction. Not to would have been….naïve.”

For more insight on naïveté in presidential politics, we look to Michael Hirsh, a Newsweek senior editor in the magazine’s Washington bureau, appearing on CNN’s Your World Today yesterday:

CNN’s Colleen McEdwards: “The gloves are starting to come off! Obama says he will start directly confronting his main challenger….Everybody is making a big deal about Get Hillary Week but why is it taking them so long to do this?”

Newsweek’s Hirsh: “… I really don’t think the gloves are off, quite honestly. That’s what the Obama camp is saying. But I think one of Obama’s problems is he is somewhat of a naïf as a political candidate, and he still seems to think that presidential campaigns are about combating over issues, rather than viciously challenging the credentials of your opponent…”

Maybe that’s why the campaign press doesn’t write more “issues” stories? Because it’s not what “presidential campaigns are about?”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.