The Corner

The Media’s Anti-Substance Bias and What John McCain Should Do About It

Last night I had the TV on long enough to watch a disturbing, evening-long debate on CNN. The various anchors, including the conservative Glenn Beck as well as Anderson Cooper, kept returning to the issue of biased media coverage for Senator Obama. They were happy to concede that he is getting more than twice the media coverage that Senator McCain is getting. The question, presented to various pundits and strategists, was whether this was strictly bias, or could there be another reason?

David Gergen, a man whose shallow thoughts have reached the ears of  too many presidents, made the point that Obama is a great story, and his campaign knows how to make things newsworthy, while McCain is boring, and his campaign is boring and therefore not newsworthy. That, not bias, according to Gergen, explains the majority of the additional coverage he gets. What constitutes newsworthy? Gergen cited the fact that McCain is going to give his convention acceptance speech in the normal convention venue, while Obama is going to do his at a stadium packed with 70,000 people. To me, this is evocative of something Leni Riefenstahl might have documented. But the word Gergen used, over and over was “sizzle.”

It should be noted that NRO’s David Frum was on the panel. He valiantly made the case for substance, and he argued, rightly of course, that McCain’s political story — the comeback from the ashes — was compelling political drama, and his substantive policies are worthy of attention. Normally Frum wins debates. But if the standard is “sizzle,” or sex appeal, then any rational, substantive argument is doomed to lose.

Gergen’s considered advice was that the McCain campaign needs more – and cleverer – dog and pony shows to attract and dazzle the media. This is the advice of a former advance man, to be sure. It is awful advice, if you think that democracy depends on informed citizens who make reasoned judgements about leadership abilities, experience, and judgement, let alone the substance of policies.  It is excellent advice if you think that this race is being treated like a reality show, with the media as judges of performances that will sell.  It is worth pointing out, of course, that even American Idol, with its faux democracy, only picks a winner who manages to go on to commercial success very intermittantly. And yet, the media, and perhaps many of our fellow citizens, seem to be looking more for an American Idol than for a President.

So the question becomes, can John McCain ever manage to compete with Barack Obama in a news media culture which is driven by the standards of commercial entertainment, not the gravitas that, at important moments such as a presidential race, should be the tone?  To ask is to answer, as they say. McCain will win this race – if he does – based on the considered alternative he offers to empty dazzle and the “change” mantra.

But, for that message to be heard,  my inner speechwriter says that McCain desperately needs to punch up his style and not be afraid of a little controversy and polarization of the electorate. I like his calm, controlled tone, and the wry humor. But irony doesn’t go over well with crowds. And the straight-forward, informational presentation only works with people who want real information. (Sigh.) It looks dull next to a well-lighted, highly staged rhetorical rock concert. A speech coach should be on the campaign plane, helping broaden the range of inflection the candidate uses to present his ideas.  (Hillary learned. Get her coach.) And it is time to go beyond the current rhetorical comfort zone and reach out to new parts of the electorate who are not yet committed. That includes big swaths of the female vote. Really reaching those voters, not just giving a pro-business speech and labeling it “women’s outreach day” could help a lot. That requires a tricky combination of strength and empathy.  (For the record, the very impressive Carly Fiorina is not a good emissary to women — other than elite professionals — for all the reasons that Oprah is…) The same kind of thoughtful, specifically empathetic and directed approach might also work with those mid-western blue collar voters who flocked to Hillary after she learned how to connect with them. 

It’s hard to do. But as E.M. Forster said, memorably, “Only connect.” Now or never Senator McCain.

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