As the presidential campaign finally gets under way (even George W. Bush is actually showing up for debates), we should wonder if the most important primary of the season is the Media Primary.
According to the media conventional wisdom, the Republican race has had one candidate. While they claim to hate the influence of big money in politics, so wowed are they by Bush's fundraising prowess that they forgot their hostility in favor of trumpeting his "inevitability."
Picking a nominee through the smoke-filled room has been replaced. All that matters now is the Media Primary. The media shrink the field through inattention before the candidates even test themselves on a single ballot.
The Media Primary has led the dark horses to put themselves out to pasture. John Kasich stayed in the race just long enough to remind reporters that a sitting member of Congress hasn't won the White House since JFK. Dan Quayle's chance to impress voters was ruined by the media long before he announced. The media liked Liddy Dole and her left-leaning campaign, and did throw her a bone here and there, but they didn't think she had a shot, either. History.
All this happened in part because the media are fixating wholly on the horse race. Picking winners and losers is far more important - and interesting - than any semblance of a discussion over ideas. Their coverage screams: What do ideas matter if you can't win?
The media have underlined their own polls showing Bush with a huge lead, and is that a surprise, the brand name notwithstanding, since he is the only GOP candidate the media have been taking seriously?
So is it over? One pollster recently asked the public if they were paying attention to the race, and the majority aren't. But they don't get a vote in the Media Primary.
In the last few weeks, national journalists have knighted Sen. John McCain as the only threat to the purported Bush dynasty. Neoliberal ninnies like Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Slate's Jacob Weisberg are now professing their vote for McCain in the Media Primary.
They love McCain because he returns calls. Alter wrote, "Reporters can be bought cheap with a little cooperation when we need it. For years, McCain has reliably returned press calls with a candid line or two."
They love McCain because he indulges their need to be closet politicians with their own agendas for the country. Weisberg cooed over McCain's willingness to consider his ideas on a school-voucher plan. "When McCain flatters you, it doesn't feel automatic or calculated. He truly likes us journalists."
They love McCain for his candor, so much so that he gets a free pass. Weisberg noted that U.S. News reporter Roger Simon passively reported McCain's use of the word "gook." (Just imagine their reaction were Pat Buchanan to use that word.) Weisberg explained: "For those who have watched his career, his outspokenness on the campaign trail appears as a refusal to be cowed by yet another prison and its silly rules."
But most of all, they love McCain because he's a "maverick" who is "growing in office," which is another way of saying "liberal," but the establishment press thinks there's no such thing as a liberal Republican. They relish McCain's liberal ideas like huge tobacco taxes and GOP- gutting, First Amendment-trashing campaign "reform." Alter wrote: "Like his hero Teddy Roosevelt, he lives large and is willing to break china inside his own party, which always makes good copy." Tell that to a pro-life Democrat.
Love for McCain is apparently more important than those "silly rules" about journalists verifying a rumor before printing it. A few weeks ago, freelance journalist Elizabeth Drew, whose latest book thumps the tub for McCain-style campaign "reform," raised the charge in The Washington Post that Senators who don't like McCain were whispering that he's too mentally unstable to be fit for the White House. Drew cited four Senators by name, but all vehemently denied it and no one corroborated the story. Thus, Drew's sleazy rumor unjustly spurred additional sympathy for McCain.
Before the media anoint Bush or McCain, the voters ought to ask: Is the Media Primary the best method for choosing a President? Should one of the measures of presidential timber be the ability to call back reporters and flatter them brilliantly? Eight years ago, another reporter- flattering candidate won the Media Primary. Is the public going to follow silently again?
Weisberg, having fawned over Clinton, now confesses: "I think that at this point, even those of us who think Clinton has been a good president hunger for a successor more deserving of our respect." After their shameful performance in the 1990s, Weisberg and his fellow political reporters are the ones who need to start begging for a little respect. They don't deserve it.