Theodore White wrote The Making of the President: 1960, a book which fascinated all political junkies as it recounted the ways and methods of the Kennedy triumph. He followed that volume with successor books each four years. The premise of each book was that by following what was happening in the two campaigns, he could fully cover all that was taking place in the election. Newsweek Magazine seeks to perpetuate his methodology in its quadrennial summaries of the election campaigns published shortly after Election Day.
But such summaries miss the essential point: The reality of modern campaigns cannot be covered by discussing what the candidates, managers, and staff are doing. It can only be fully understood by covering what the media is doing during the campaigns. That is why Bernie Goldberg’s new book A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media, despite its long title, is so important to read. It is not a supply side treatment of the campaign – focusing on what the candidates were putting out to the public. Rather, it is a demand side treatment, covering what the public was absorbing through the media.
In 2004, the media did a bad job of covering the campaign impartially. But by 2008, it had abandoned that goal. By 2008, we had become a British system with some media dedicated to the Republicans and others to the Democrats. Each newspaper and television station and radio program had a partisan affiliation. There were no longer any neutrals. MSNBC courted the liberal vote as surely as Fox News did the conservatives. Media that pretended to play it down the middle were shown up for what they were: closet fans of one side or the other (usually of the left) who disguise themselves as impartial.
What Goldberg does, which needed doing, is not to focus on the message sent by each campaign but on that which was received by the voters via the prism of the media. More and more we are going to have to get used to this filtration and, like Russians during the cold war, we will have to get used to reading between the lines of Pravda to get the truth. (Oddly, “Pravda” means truth in Russian. Credit to George Orwell).
In all things, consumers want what they want. People don’t read Sports Illustrated hoping for the occasional coverage of golf or tennis or hockey. The read magazines devoted to each particular sport to get exactly what they want. So it is in politics. We have become segmented by our inputs, each of us seeking out elaboration and ratification of what we already think.
It is to the commercial disadvantage of the “mainstream” media that they compete for half the vote. It is the fiscal edge of FoxNews and talk radio that they share the other half.
Bernie Goldberg puts to rest any notion that there is anything impartial that is sent out over the air. In doing so, he disabuses us of the idea that there is a Santa Claus or a tooth fairy or an Easter bunny. He ends our innocence. Better sooner than later.